The Notre Dame Fighting Irish (34-0) that dismantled Robert Morris Saturday afternoon took awhile to show up Monday night in their second round match-up against the 9th-seeded Arizona State Sun Devils (23-10).
Notre Dame struggled mightily out of the gates in this one, losing the "1st quarter" and forcing a Muffet McGraw timeout after the Sun Devils took a 15-12 lead midway through the first half. As dominant a season as they have had, the Irish did not look at all like the undefeated top-seed they are known to be in Monday's first half. Their 12(!) first half turnovers gifted the Sun Devils the ugly game that Cinderellas typically seek in March.
Natalie Achonwa was relied upon to buoy the offense as All-American backcourt Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd were ice cold to start the game. Achonwa's 12 first half points were the bright spots in a half that saw her teammates combine on 6 of 19 shooting from the field.
There is no doubt that Notre Dame's identity is on the offensive side of the ball this year, but with that failing them, their defense certainly stepped up early Monday night. They forced Arizona State into 14 turnovers and held them to just 37 percent shooting in the first half.
Despite their struggles offensively, the Irish were able to carry a six-point lead into halftime. After that, things were reminiscent of some games earlier this season (at Oregon State, at Tennessee, vs. Duke, at Florida State, among others) that saw Notre Dame muddle through a close first half before taking control in the second.
Achonwa continued her dominance after halftime, as she keyed the Irish the whole way in this one for one of her better games all season. Her 25 points and 11 rebounds were both game-highs, and her 8 of 10 shooting helped boost an otherwise mildly disappointing shooting night for Notre Dame.
McBride was able to heat up during the second half, scoring 16 of her 22 after the break. She provided a steady hand in an otherwise sloppy game offensively for the Irish, as her 9-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio was needed on a night when Notre Dame turned the ball over 21 times.
The Irish were able to close out the 17-point victory, one in which they led by as many as 25 on multiple occasions, with little drama in the second half, but this was hardly the game to point to for those with title aspirations. The sloppiness offensively and, at times, on the boards, was fine against a young (and often sloppy themselves) Arizona State team but will make it difficult to defeat teams like Baylor, Tennessee, West Virginia, and of course, Connecticut standing in the way of a national championship. Look for a much cleaner offensive night for the Irish in the next round.
Notre Dame takes on the 5th-seeded Oklahoma State Cowboys, who defeated the 4 seed Purdue Boilermakers on Monday night, in the Notre Dame regional semifinal. The game will take place Saturday at 2pm EST at the Purcell Pavilion with a berth into the regional semifinals on the line. The Irish will be playing for their fourth straight trip to the Elite 8.