SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins walked out to center court for the start of the second half, spotted a friendly face in Utah’s hostile Huntsman Center, and winked.
Even though No. 2 seed Notre Dame only had a three-point halftime lead in its first-round NCAA women’s basketball battle against host and No. 15 seed Utah, Diggins was going to make sure the Fighting Irish had their fight on in the second half.
Diggins scored nine of Notre Dame’s first 13 points of the second half, and sparked the Irish to a 67-54 victory against a scrappy Utah club.
Diggins finished with 20 points. Natalie Novosel also scored 20 points for Notre Dame (27-7). Becca Bruszewski scored 13 points and kicked out six assists for the Irish, and Devereaux Peters scored 12 points and hammer-blocked four Utah shots.
Iwalani Rodrigues led Utah (18-17) with a 21-point effort and Michelle Harrison scored 10 points and grabbed 16 rebounds.
No. 2 seed Notre Dame takes on No. 10 seed Temple (24-8) on Monday night at the Huntsman Center at 9:30 p.m. EDT (ESPN2) to battle for a berth in regional action at Dayton. The Owls whipped No. 7 seed Arizona State, 63-45, on Saturday.
Playing its first game in nearly two weeks against a hot team on its home court, the Irish struggled early. Utah, which went red hot to win four straight and capture the Mountain West Conference Tournament title last week, tormented the Irish with crisp 3-point shooting early and tough rebounding to hang close.
"I thought that it would be a half like that (rusty), but I didn’t expect it would be longer than that," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "We didn’t get into a flow.
"Defensively, I thought we were bad. We left the 3-point shooter (Rodrigues) open quite a bit in the first half, and she knocked them down, just like we thought she would. She’s really a good shooter. I thought in the second half, our defense got much better, and then we got a couple of turnovers."
But the determined Diggins helped the Irish pull away.
Diggins opened up the second half with a pull-up jumper, and after a Peters’ lay-up, Diggins nailed a 3 from the right wing to give Notre Dame a 7-0 run to open the half. After Utah reeled eight straight points to cut a 10-point Irish lead to 43-41, Diggins took charge again, slicing through the Utah defense for four more points in a 6-0 Irish surge for a 49-41 lead with 11:26 left in the game.
"We wanted to make a run," Diggins said. "We talked about that. We needed to. We ran some stuff off of transition and ran the offense through, and I got open a couple of times and just knocked it down. Then we started going to Natalie (Novosel), and that opened things up."
Utah outrebounded Notre Dame, 41-34, and owned a 14-4 edge in second-chance points.
Rodrigues turned up the heat from the arc, but McGraw switched Brittany Mallory off of Michelle Plouffe to guard Rodrigues.
"She really shut her down," McGraw said. "I don’t even think she got a shot after that. We had made the decision that we were going to take away the 3-point shot, and we had gotten a little better defensively, but Brittany was the key."
"They were a little more physical and a little stronger down the stretch, and I think that was a huge key," Utah interim coach Anthony Levrets said.
While Rodrigues and Harrison hurt the Irish, Janita Badon and Michelle Plouffe struggled. Badon averages 12.6 points a game and scored 11 points, and Plouffe was averaging 13.9 points a game and finished with seven. Badon was 4-of-21 shooting and Plouffe was 2-of-10.
"They were all a lot taller than me," the 5-7 Badon said. "They are all athletic and they play great defense. They were at the spots they needed to be and were smart defensively."
Irish post player Bruszewski turned in key plays at both ends of the court in the final minute of the first half to help the Irish take a 36-33 lead at the break. Bruszewski took a charge as Utah’s Rachel Messer drove baseline to the basket with 35 seconds left in the half and the Irish leading by one, 34-33.
Bruszewski made it 36-33 with four seconds left. The Notre Dame senior captain slashed down the lane and took a pass from Diggins for a lay-up.
Utah ran into foul trouble by the 14:39 mark of the first half. Both of its 6-foot-4 starters, Diana Rolniak and Plouffe, were on the bench by that point with two fouls each.
Notre Dame only expanded a 10-7 lead from that point to a 19-15 lead when Plouffe checked back in at the 8:23 mark. The Utes’ post didn’t wait long to make an impact, nailing a 3-pointer 35 seconds after she returned to the court to cut the Irish lead to 19-18. It was a see-saw battle from that point until Bruszewski gave the Irish their halftime edge.
NOTRE DAME 67, UTAH 54
At Salt Lake City
NOTRE DAME (67): Devereaux Peters 6-9 0-1 12, Becca Bruszewski 4-9 5-6 13, Skylar Diggins 7-18 4-7 20, Natalie Novosel 7-16 5-7 20, Brittany Mallory 0-3 0-0 0, Natalie Achonwa 1-1 0-0 2, Fraderica Miller 0-0 0-0 0, Kaila Turner 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-56 14-21 67.
UTAH (54): Michelle Harrison 5-10 0-2 10, Michelle Plouffe 2-10 2-2 7, Diana Rolniak 0-4 2-2 2, Janita Badon 4-21 3-3 11, Iwalani Rodrigues 6-9 5-6 21, Rachel Messer 1-1 0-0 3, Chelsea Bridgewater 0-0 0-0 0, Ciera Dunbar 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-55 12-15 54.
Halftime — Notre Dame 36-33. 3-Point Goals — Notre Dame 3-7 (Diggins 2-4, Novosel 1-1, Mallory 0-2), Utah 6-18 (Rodrigues 4-6, Messer 1-1, Plouffe 1-4, Harrison 0-2, Badon 0-5). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Notre Dame 34 (Bruszewski, Peters 6), Utah 41 (Harrison 16). Assists — Notre Dame 16 (Bruszewski 6), Utah 7 (Badon 5). Total Fouls — Notre Dame 14, Utah 19. A — 2,366.
Staff writer Curt Rallo: