GREENSBORO, N.C. – The top-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish claimed their first ever Atlantic Coast Conference tournament trophy with a 69-53 win over the second-seeded Duke Blue Devils in the championship game of the 2014 ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament played at Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday.
Led by Tournament MVP Jewell Loyd (25 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists) and fellow First Team member Kayla McBride (26 points, 7 rebounds) the Irish put together an overpowering second half that outdistanced them from the Blue Devils.
“We’ve got some great lessons, lessons that we’ll take from this game,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said.
“We’re very grateful to play the games that we played. We needed to play the maximum we could play in this tournament. We’re very disappointed to not finish and do what we do, but at the same time we’re looking forward to improve from this.”
As the newcomer and top overall team in the conference, the Fighting Irish (32-0, 16-0) swept the league and tournament titles as the defending champion Blue Devils had done for three of the past four seasons.
Coming into the game, the Irish held an 8-1 advantage in the all-time series against Duke, including two wins during the regular season.
Notre Dame’s play during the final 20 minutes against the Blue Devils (27-6, 12-4) capped off a year of change in ACC play that showed that the Irish were now the league’s top team.
Beating the previous champion and top team in the league for a third consecutive time in one season affirmed that.
Elizabeth Williams (17 points, 16 rebounds) and Haley Peters (18 points, 6 rebounds) played valiantly and led a Duke offense that operated in two different gears during the championship final.
The Blue Devils went to work right from the opening tip as Williams opened the game’s scoring just 26 seconds in.
There was no question that the game would be an endurance match as both teams traded baskets and shot attempts throughout the first half.
Finishing with almost identical shooting percentages, there were seven lead changes throughout the first 20 minutes of play as Duke did its work inside to score points in the paint, while the Irish converted from the near and far perimeter.
It was no surprise that both teams were tied 28-28 by halftime, but two fundamental differences took place in the final half that made the difference in deciding the game’s outcome.
Firstly, Duke committed 13 of their 20 total turnovers in the game right from the first blast of the whistle to start the final 20 minutes of play, and that resulted in Notre Dame converting 18 points off of those miscues.
Secondly, Notre Dame changed the tempo of its game defensively to crowd Williams inside while continuing to lock off on guard Tricia Liston, who finished with only four points.
“The second half I thought we did a much better job of really getting out on the break and running and doing the things we do in the transition game,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said.
“Defensively, I thought we did a little bit more, tried to trap them a little bit more and get some turnovers and I thought we were able to do that.”
To begin the second half, the Blue Devils looked to continue working at the pace they began the game with as Peters and Richa Jackson (2 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists) put Duke ahead quickly, leading 32-28.
However, from that point on, McBride and Loyd propelled a 21-4 run that took advantage of five turnovers and five missed shots from Duke that put Notre Dame ahead by 13 points, leading 49-36 with 12:06 to play.
“I think it was kind of a matter of focus and concentration and getting the ball inside,” Williams said.
“I think like Coach P said, we bugged out of some of our offenses in the second half. Defensively, I think we started cheating out the shooters, and that kind of left the paint a little more open in the second half.”
Even while outrebounding the Irish 40-36, the Blue Devils gave up too many scoreless possessions and eventually put themselves out of contention to get any closer for the rest of the game.
Combined with more turnovers and missed shots from the field, Duke finished with an uncharacteristic 3 of 12 performance from the free throw line to further inhibit its ability to narrow the margin to anything less than nine points.
Notre Dame didn’t slow its pace down and continued to use its transition game to keep scoring and eventually pushed its lead to a game-high 18 points, 69-51 with 56 seconds remaining in the game.
As the final horn sounded, and amid a rainfall of confetti and balloons streaming down from the rafters, the Irish’s first ACC Tournament championship celebration with their contingent amongst the 8,190 in attendance began.
2014 ACC WOMEN’S ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM
Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame (MVP)
Kayla McBride, Norte Dame
Elizabeth Williams, Duke
Tricia Liston, Duke
Diamond DeShields, North Carolina
Natalie Achonwa, Notre Dame
Haley Peters, Duke
Natasha Howard, Florida State
Alyssa Thomas, Maryland
Dearica Hamby, Wake Forest