SOUTH BEND – Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said the biggest surprise about No. 2 Notre Dame this season is that the team is better without Skylar Diggins.
Hillsman said coaches around the country expected a bit of a drop-off for the Irish after Diggins graduated after leading the Irish to three straight Final Fours, including two title games.
I guess that theory is out the window, he said. No drop-off.
After seeing Jewell Loyd score 23 points, Kayla McBride add 18 and the second-ranked Irish open a 33-point halftime lead Sunday in a 101-64 victory, the eighth-year Syracuse coach said he believes it’s the best Notre Dame team he has seen.
I thought last year with Skylar, some of the players would let her do her thing and kind of step to the side and let her shine. And she did, nothing against her. She really dominated the game, he said. I think now with Skylar being gone they’re so balanced. It’s so hard to prepare for a team that has that kind of balance and can score from all sports on the floor.
The Orange (17-7, 6-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) clearly weren’t prepared. Notre Dame took control from the start, beating the Syracuse zone inside and outside, jumping to a 14-2 lead, extending it to 29-10 midway through the first half and 61-28 at halftime, their most points in the first half this season. The Irish shot 61 percent in the first half, holding the Orange to 31 percent shooting, and outscoring Syracuse 20-8 inside.
I thought it was one of the best halves we’ve had, and we’ve had some good ones, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. We shot the ball well, we handled the press well, I was most pleased defensively.
Notre Dame also matched its season-high with 10 3-pointers while holding the Orange to five, two below Syracuse’s average. The Irish also forced 24 turnovers.
Loyd was 9-of-11 shooting, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range, and the only thing that could slow her was sitting on the bench for nearly half the first half after picking up her second foul. McBride was 7-of-12 shooting as the Irish improved to 23-0, matching the best start in school history. The other time the Irish (10-0 ACC) started 23-0 was in 2000-01 en route to the national championship.