GREENSBORO, N.C. -- A new species of being arrived in that basketball civilization known as the Atlantic Coast Conference this season and in its never-ending, predatory pursuit of perfection, saw something it wanted: The ACC Tournament championship. The will of the ACC's existing inhabitants was deemed irelevant. Resistance was futile. In only one season, with cold, ruthless, machine-like efficiency that basketball Borg entity known as Notre Dame assimilated each of the worthy opponents that stood in its path, finishing on Sunday afternoon in Greensboro with Duke, the last of them standing in th way. And then it assimliated the championship itself.
On their way to their 69-53 title game victory on Sunday, the Irish actually encountered a speedbump or two, as the Devils Blue put up quite a fight, acquitting themselves quite well for more than 30 minutes. With Duke leading for big chunks of the first half and absolutely owning the paint, to the tune of a 20-6 first-half edge in points in the paint, the two teams slugged their way to a 28-28 tie at the break. In particular, Duke center Elizabeth Williams dominated Notre Dame post Natalie Achonwa, holding her to just two points and forcing three turnovers in the opening frame.
Two things kept Notre Dame in the game in the first half: Kayla McBride's shooting (15 points, all on either threes or fairly low-percentage elbow shots) and the Irish defense. The Irish kept Duke off the foul line and smothered Duke sharpshooter Tricia Liston, whose attempts at compensating by attacking the basket were thwarted as she was called for charges on three occasions.
When Duke went up four early in the second half, Irish coach Muffet McGraw knew drastic measures were called for. So she got out a hammer and took Jewell Loyd out of the "In Case of Emergency, Break Glass" case. Loyd unleashed three straight jumpers, two of them from beyond the arc, to trigger a 16-2 run.
As a team that prefers to have inside-outside balance, it must have rankled McGraw a bit to fall back on her guards' simply blasting away from the perimeter, but Duke did a poor job of jamming them or getting them off balance. Duke's defenders simply gave Loyd too much room to operate, and while she's only a slightly above-average shooter, if she gets on a roll she's always demonstrated that she's impossible to stop.
By six minutes into the second frame, that run had given Notre Dame a 10-point advantage (44-34), and from there the Irish would periodically add a few points to the working margin and the Blue Devils would occasionally create a minor and quickly patched divot in the double-digit lead, Notre Dame would never relinquish the separation. Duke squandered the opportunity to draw closer by shooting just 3-12 from the foul line. The Blue Devils worked hard to get looks, but because they didn't finish, they made Notre Dame's job that much easier.
The Irish were mildly pleased after winning the game, joining arms in a jig on the floor, but they have bigger goals on their mind. This might have been their first ACC title, but it was their seventh conference title, having won five in the old Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now the Horizon League) and one in the Big East last year. They are poised to win many more.
But for now, the eyes of the Borg are locked in on Nashville. There is something there that it wants to assimilate.
Player of the Game: Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame. The MVP of the tournament spurred the 12-0/16-2 run that erased a four-point Duke lead early in the second half and gave the Irish a working margin that they nursed the rest of the half. She finished with 26 points (18 of them in the second stanza), seven rebounds, two assists and three steals and proved to be the one player that Duke had no answer for. When they played her tight, she managed to drive. When Duke gave her a little room, she bombed away. When Duke started to turn the ball over, it was Loyd who spurred Notre Dame's transition game by making several tough finishes in traffic. Loyd even showed a little excitement when she hit big shots early in the half, a rarity for a team that displays little emotion.
Stat of the Game: 23-8. That was the margin for points off turnovers, a margin that was an even more glaring 18-2 in the second half. That was essentially the game in a nutshell, as the Devils started speeding up a bit too much and wasted a number of possessions, and those errors led to some easy baskets for the Irish.
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