Irish ride hot start into Elite Eight

— -- SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The comforts of home for Notre Dame include a crowd that is relentless from the time the Irish take the floor to the quiet moments preceding the postgame singing of the alma mater, a fury that has followed the team through each of its 15 victories here in the regular season.

The familiar floor decals were replaced Saturday by the generic NCAA models for tournament games, but the energy inside the Purcell Pavilion was in turn charged up another level.

"I thought the roof might come off, the crowd was so loud at times," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "And they really, really got us off to a great start. So thanks to the crowd for getting that game going."

Top-seeded Notre Dame once again won an NCAA tournament game by 17 points, topping No. 5 seed Oklahoma State 89-72. But the fashion in which the Irish ended the Cowgirls' season could not have been any more different from their Monday triumph in Toledo, Ohio, where they finished off ninth-seeded Arizona State late in an 84-67 victory.

That's not to say the Irish's Sweet 16 performance was perfect. And it's not to say the support of a fan base that lets no call go unpunished will carry them past No. 2 seed Baylor Monday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET), when they will be playing for a fourth straight Final Four trip.

But Notre Dame's latest win was a product of a ridiculously hot start that put it in the driver's seat for all 40 minutes, an opening that McGraw could sense was five days and, frankly, 35 games in the making.

All those ACC battles in the foreign environs of a new conference, all that weight of wearing the bull's-eye, and the Irish just couldn't wait to get back here.

"I think there was a little thought of, 'We've got to get back home,' and maybe we came out a little tight," McGraw said of her team's second-round win earlier in the week. "I thought Natalie [Achonwa] came out well but then she got two quick fouls, she was out for the rest of the half. I think we lost our rhythm, I think with the substitutions.

"I think this game we had the right people on the floor in the beginning of the game. I think the comfort level of playing at home was big."

Achonwa helped set the tone early Saturday, lifting the Irish to a 14-0 lead just 3½ minutes into the contest, one they never relinquished. She poured in a day's work over the game's first 20 minutes, tallying 14 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks.

But her final totals of 23 points, 7 boards, 6 assists and 5 blocks -- while shooting 10-for-13, no less -- hardly told the story.

"Where she's most dangerous is [as] a passer," Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell said. "I don't know if there's any post players in the country that pass the ball as well as that young lady does. You turn your head and she's going to send one right by your ear and hit somebody for an open layup or a 2-pointer. When you have the ability to score on the box, but you also have the ability to beat people with the pass, it makes you a special player.

"She has more dimensions to her game than a lot of post players in the country. She can beat you in various ways."

Littell said he thought his team played even with the Irish after the first five or seven minutes, and he wasn't exactly wrong. Oklahoma State played Notre Dame to a 35-35 draw over the half's final 16-plus minutes, and the Irish outscored the Cowgirls by only a 40-37 margin in the second half.

But the Oklahoma State coach also said that McGraw must run her squad through endless conditioning drills, describing the Irish bigs as "thoroughbreds" who can run the floor and create for others.

It's not exactly that simple, as the Irish haven't raced to a 35-0 record on stamina alone. For seemingly every Achonwa whose finesse belies her position, there is a Jewell Loyd who is unafraid to mix it up with bigger bodies down low.

The sophomore Loyd scored 20 points and notched three steals, but the game-high 12 rebounds are what jump out when evaluating the 5-foot-10 guard's performance.

"You have guards like Jewell and Kayla McBride and Lindsay Allen, people that can get up the floor as opposed to people who don't keep up with you and get left behind," Achonwa said. "So I think it's just focusing on how to play the gaps and how to get up the court. Half the time I'm open because they're so focused on Kayla getting up the court or Jewell coming for the alley-oop on the other side that I just slip in the middle."

And having the legs to do so helps, though Achonwa said conditioning is usually weaved into Notre Dame's practices.

"We don't sit on the court and just run, but it's a lot of mixes in the drills that we do," she said. "We do a lot of transition drills and that's just Notre Dame basketball. That's how we play."

It's a trademark that has Notre Dame basketball on the brink of yet another Final Four, with a supporting cast more than ready to lend a helping hand.