KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wanted to see how her undefeated team would respond to a test.
She got just the answer she wanted.
Kayla McBride scored 22 points to lead five players in double figures Monday as the second-ranked Irish erased an early 12-point deficit in an 86-70 victory over No. 11 Tennessee. Before Monday, Notre Dame (17-0) hadn’t trailed by more than seven points all season.
We’re veterans, McGraw said. I thought we’re going to learn a good lesson, win or lose. It’s going to help us down the road, prepare us for the ACC, (playing in) a great crowd, a hostile environment. We hadn’t really seen anything quite this big this year. I thought it was just a great opportunity for us to see where we are.
Since losing the first 20 games in this series, Notre Dame has beaten Tennessee four straight times by an average margin of 17 points. Notre Dame continued its recent mastery of Tennessee by outscoring the Vols 45-24 in the second half.
After getting off to a sizzling start, Tennessee shot 8 of 32 and committed 12 turnovers in the second half. Tennessee (14-4) has led at halftime in each of its last three losses.
It feels like this team is very sensitive, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. We want it so much that it’s almost detrimental to us. We want it so badly. I would love to see how we’d play when everybody’s clicking on all cylinders. It would really be a lot of fun, but that’s up to me, to put them in positions and to get them ready for the next game.
Michaela Mabrey and Natalie Achonwa each scored 15 points for Notre Dame, which hit 10 of 20 3-pointers. Madison Cable had 12 points and Jewell Loyd added 11.
Meighan Simmons scored 23 points and shot 10 of 14 for Tennessee (14-4). Isabelle Harrison had 13 points and 16 rebounds. Ariel Massengale had 14 points, all in the first nine minutes.
Notre Dame entered the night leading the nation in field-goal percentage (.517), 3-point percentage (.436) and assists per game (22.4) while racing to the second-fastest start in school history, behind the 2000-01 national championship team that opened 23-0.
Tennessee grabbed a 42-30 lead by beating the hot-shooting Irish at their own game.
Tennessee shot 55.9 percent (19 of 34) overall and went 5 of 6 from 3-point range in the first half against a Notre Dame team that hadn’t allowed any opponent to make more than 44.9 percent of its shots all season.
Notre Dame committed three turnovers in the first 90 seconds of the game and had to adjust to playing without Loyd, who picked up two fouls in the first 5 1/2 minutes of the game and sat out the rest of the first half. Loyd entered the night averaging a team-high 17.3 points per game.
But the Irish never panicked.
We’ve been through so much – three (straight) Final Fours, said McBride, who had seven assists to go along with her 22 points. We’ve been in these types of environments with NCAA tournament games. We just had to calm everybody down and execute our game plan.