Women’s NCAA tournament — Second-half defense carries Notre Dame Fighting Irish over Oregon Ducks and into Final Four

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SPOKANE, Wash. — After coming back from a two-point halftime deficit to beat Texas A&M in Saturday’s regional semifinal, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rallied from an even larger disadvantage to beat the Oregon Ducks 84-74 in Monday’s final to advance to the Final Four.

Notre Dame didn’t seem to have any answer for Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu before the break, but an adjustment in how they defended Ionescu turned things around in the second half. The Irish dominated the third quarter, outscoring the Ducks 21-9, and stymied any attempt by Oregon to rally in the final period.

Coach Muffet McGraw, who reached the Final Four for the eighth time at Notre Dame, said Saturday that her team feels like it is poised in the face of a deficit and can come back. The numbers prove it: The Irish are now an incredible 5-1 this season when they trail at halftime.

Player of the game: You could make a case for any of the five Notre Dame starters as most outstanding player of the regional, but the hero Monday was forward Kathryn Westbeld. Westbeld sprained her ankle in the Irish’s opening-round win and remains in a walking boot off the court, but she played 30-plus minutes in both of Notre Dame’s games in Spokane.

Typically more valuable for her toughness than her scoring, Westbeld made a crucial jumper to extend the Irish lead to two possessions late in Saturday’s win over Texas A&M and carried that over against the Oregon zone. Westbeld’s 20 points were one shy of her career high and she added seven rebounds and three assists.

How it was won: A defensive adjustment after halftime. Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu dominated the first half, scoring 19 points as the Ducks took a six-point lead to the locker room. While Notre Dame’s Jackie Young did a fine job individually on Ionescu, Oregon was able to create opportunities for Ionescu to score out of the pick-and-roll.

In the second half, the Irish began hedging against Ionescu ball screens, forcing her away from the basket and daring her teammates to beat them. Ionescu missed her first five shots of the second half, finishing 1-of-9 with just six points. Without her scoring punch, the high-powered Oregon attack mustered just 28 points in 38 second-half possessions.

Stat of the game: Notre Dame held a 26-9 advantage in second-chance points. While the Irish didn’t shoot any better than Oregon, making an identical 43.1 percent from the field, they rebounded 45 percent of their own missed shots and those extra opportunities kept the offense afloat.

What’s next: A date with undefeated UConn on Friday at the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio. (Gulp.) The Huskies handed the Irish one of their three losses this season, 80-71 on Dec. 3 in Hartford, though Notre Dame led by eight heading into the fourth quarter.



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