SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame stayed cool at halftime. No big speeches needed. The top-seeded Irish knew they were in a struggle with a good team and had to do something to get themselves and their home crowd into the game.
“We knew what we needed to fix and we just came out and did it,” Irish forward Devereaux Peters said.
They did it with defense, making five steals in the first four minutes of the second half and using a 10-2 run to get some distance. They rode that surge to a 73-62 victory Tuesday night that sends them into the round of 16 at the NCAA tournament.
“We were getting outworked,” star guard Skylar Diggins said. “And we had to pick up our hustle a little bit.”
Coach Muffet McGraw wanted her team to be more aggressive, especially against Cal’s big and talented front line.
“We knew this would be a challenge. They gave us everything we could handle,” McGraw said.
“We talked about helping out and attacking the ball a little bit more. I thought it was pretty effective,” she said. “We put more pressure on the ball.”
Their defense swung the game early in the second half and got the Golden Bears a bit rattled. Another major factor was the Irish’s effectiveness at the free throw line where they made 26 of 33.
Natalie Novosel made 18 of 20 free throw attempts to finish with 28 points. Diggins had 15 of her 21 points in the second half and Peters had 11 points, 14 rebounds and a career-high seven blocks.
“Shots weren’t falling for me at first, so I just started attacking the basket and was able to get confidence there,” Novosel said.
The Golden Bears stayed close in the opening half with tough defense, a deep bench and poise as they refused to be bothered by Notre Dame’s partisan and loud home crowd. Then it all changed quickly in the opening minutes of the second half.
“I think Notre Dame feeds of the crowds and gets better. I didn’t feel like our mistakes came from panic. I think it came when the other team was able to do things that rattle you,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.
“ There is no question we got a little bit rattled and made some mistakes that changed the tempo of the game at the beginning of the second half.”
Cal (25-10) got 17 points from Layshia Clarendon and 15 from Reshanda Gray. But the Golden Bears were hurt by 19 turnovers, 12 in the second half.
“They just didn’t steal the ball, we also threw it to them a number of times,” Clarendon said. “We lost our composure. ... We’ve faced pressure all year, we’ve faced zone and we’ve faced ranked teams. I think it was us more than them, taking crazy and quick shots and not playing how we know how to play.”
Novosel, who had 17 points by half, shot just 5 for 18 from the field but made the most of her frequent trips to the line. Notre Dame finished 26-for-33 from the line to only 7 for 14 for Cal in the rough and physical game.
It is Notre Dame’s 10th trip to the round of 16 in the last 16 seasons under coach McGraw.
Notre Dame came out with a quick 8-2 run in the first two minutes of the second half as Diggins scored four points and Kayla McBride hit a layup after making a steal. After a timeout, McBride made another steal and Brittany Mallory drove for a lefty layup and a 41-33 lead.
The Irish came up with five steals in the first four minutes of the second half as Cal suddenly had trouble handling the ball and the crowd at the Purcell Pavilion erupted.
Peters made two free throws for a 10-point lead and the Golden Bears stayed close because of two clutch jumpers by Clarendon.
Diggins then went high to tip a Cal inbounds pass and drove for a layup make it a 12-point. And when the Notre Dame star went hard to the basket on another break attempt, she got knocked to the floor by Clarendon.
And after officials reviewed the video it was ruled a flagrant. Diggins hit one of two free throws, Notre Dame retained possession and McBride hit a three-pointer to push the lead to 54-37 with 12:17 left.
Cal rallied and cut it to nine points four times, including a final time with 25 seconds to go but their gritty comeback attempt fell short. Gennifer Brandon had 12 rebounds for the Golden Bears.
Cal shot 46 percent in the first half and held Notre Dame to 34 percent.
Clarendon missed her first three shots before making four straight and scoring 10 points, including a pair of three-pointers. Diggins also missed her first three attempts and had six first-half points.
Cal had a late 8-0 run and took a two-point lead with just under a minute left before Novosel hit a jumper with about 30 seconds left that made it 31-31 at the half.
Cal freshman Brittany Boyd, one of the stars in the Golden Bears’ opening-round win over Iowa, picked up her third foul early in the second half and then her fourth about 11 and a half minutes left. She fouled out with 2:53 to go, scoring nine points in 22 minutes.