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  ACC Championship: #1 Notre Dame 69, #2 Duke 53
Irish Perfection Earns Program's First ACC Title
March 9, 2014

 
By Rob Clough, Photos by Orin Day

Jewell Loyd efficiently scored 26 points on 10-16 shooting as top seeded Notre Dame defeated Duke for the third time this season, claiming their first ever ACC Championship.
Photo by Orin Day - Full Gallery Below

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GREENSBORO -- Notre Dame (32-0) became only the seventh team to win the ACC tournament as they knocked off Duke (27-6) in a game that was far closer than its final score of 69-53 might indicate. Indeed, the Devils led for much of the first half and went into the game half tied at 28 after Ka'lia Johnson scored on a last-second layup. Duke looked sharper and more intense in the first half than the Irish, as they were perhaps steeled by their brutal match-up with UNC the previous evening. For the first time all season, Notre Dame's players looked visibly frustrated as they had no inside-outside balance.

Duke's frontcourt used its size and versatility to keep Notre Dame's frontcourt off-balance. Haley Peters mixed drives and short jump shots along with hooks to keep Duke's offense humming. Elizabeth Williams went to work against Natalie Achonwa, Taya Reimer and whoever else Notre Dame threw at her, blocking shots and post up for scores. The Irish posts turned the ball over twice in a row in the first half, and Duke scored six straight point to go up 16-10. Irish guard Michaela Mabrey hit a three that halted the run as part of a 7-0 Irish run that was mostly fueled by Jewell Loyd. The Devils started missing shots and the Irish went up 25-20 on a foul shot by Kayla McBride. It seemed like danger time for the Devils, as this is when the Irish generally tend to knock out opponents. Instead, Oderah Chidom wormed her way into the post and scored. The teams traded turnovers until Duke got consecutive baskets by Peters and Williams, the latter after three offensive rebounds by the Devils. After a Notre Dame turnover late in the half, Johnson scored that shot that seemed to give Duke a lot of energy going into the half. Indeed, the Devils owned a 20-6 advantage in paint points, were +2 on the boards and otherwise were even in terms of hustle stats.

In the second half, Duke got a layup by Richa Jackson and a short jumper by Peters to take a four point lead. That's when Jewell Loyd took it upon herself to take over the game. Given a decent amount of room to operate, she drained a three, then hit a short jumper after a Duke turnover, then hit another three after a turnover by Williams. All told, the Devils turned the ball over four straight times, and that was fatal against a team as opportunistic as the Irish. The lead got up to 44-34 before Williams scored in the post with 13:31 left, which began the long and tortuous process of Duke trying to crawl back into the game. That process was made all the more difficult when Duke kept missing free throws. Oderah Chidom could have cut the lead to seven but missed two shots. Chidom scored on Duke's next possession but missed a foul shot that would have made it a three point play and cut the lead to six. When Duke would come up with a big defensive play, the Irish would respond with a big shot, like Mabrey's trey with 8:26 to go. The Irish pushed the lead up to fourteen with two minutes to go, and that was the ball game, as the Devils simply couldn't crack the defense to get open looks from three, and the Irish celebrated. That celebration was somewhat muted, as they have bigger goals in mind: winning another national title.

The All-Tournament team featured Loyd, McBride, Williams and Liston on the first team along with Diamond DeShields of UNC, with Loyd as the MVP. The second team featured Peters, Achonwa, Natasha Howard of FSU, Dearica Hamby of Wake Forest and Alyssa Thomas of Maryland. My own ballot varied from this only in that I swapped out Liston for Peters on the first team and swapped out Ka'lia Johnson for Natalie Achonwa on the second team.

Top Performers

  1. Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame. 26 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals. When the chips were down for the Irish in the second half, the Irish broke the cabinet that said "In case of emergency, here's Jewell Loyd" and unleashed her from the perimeter. Three jump shots later, the Irish were in control.

  2. Kayla McBride, Notre Dame. 25 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists. Duke took away McBride's playmaking, but she kept her team in the game in the first half with her shooting. Shooting from the elbow and foul line extended, she hit shot after shot.

  3. Elizabeth Williams, Duke. 17 points, 16 rebounds, 3 blocks. Williams outplayed Notre Dame's frontcourt at both ends, and her energy and effort kept Duke close.

Game Analysis

Why Notre Dame Won: The Irish had a 23-8 edge in points off turnovers as they were able to speed up the Devils just enough to force them into thirteen second-half turnovers. They suffocated Duke's shooters and Tricia Liston in particular, holding her to 2-11 shooting from the floor. The best backcourt in America was put in a position where they had to hit jump shots to help their team win, and they did it.

Why Duke Lost: The Devils did not lack for effort, but they fell short in terms of detail. Their twenty turnovers came on just six steals for the Irish, as most of them came on offensive fouls, stepping on lines and travels. They had a chance to stay close at the foul line, but shot just 3-12. Those errors made things easier for the Irish, who established just enough of a lead to keep Duke on edge.

The Game Turned When...: Jewell Loyd scored eight straight points in the second half after Duke went up four, which triggered an overall 16-2 Notre Dame run. Duke was never able to get closer than nine after that.

X-Factor: Michaela Mabrey. The shooter scored 7 crucial points, giving the Irish another target that allowed them to stretch the floor.

Key Stat: 8-0. That was the edge in fast break points for the Irish, all in the second half. Getting easy scores was a crucial part of extending their lead, as they were clearly uncomfortable with simply depending on shooting jump shots.

Areas for Improvement: Duke has to handle the ball better in the face of a team that plays solid and disciplined position defense like the Irish. The Irish don't make many mistakes by trying to overpressure the ball; they simply force the other team to make tough shots and make decisions in tight situations. The Irish may be a little concerned about how effectively Duke's frontcourt shut them down for much of the game, necessitating going to a bigger lineup perhaps a little more than Muffet McGraw would have liked.

Ramifications: The Irish rolled through the ACC regular season and tournament without a blemish and barely any challenges. They will be a #1 seed in their own region, where they will be extremely tough to stop. Considering Duke's schedule and the fact that they've proven they can go toe-to-toe with great teams even with an injured lineup, I'd say that the Blue Devils deserve a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

They Said It: "I don't think they'll put us together in the first round. I think we'll be pretty focused on that opponent, whoever that turns out to be." -- Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, on going into the NCAA tournament undefeated along with UConn.

DWHoops Photos by Orin Day

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