Georgia Tech got an up-close look at No. 2 Notre Dame Sunday, and even with the defending national champions not at their best, the outcome was not close.
In front of their largest home crowd in at least five seasons, the Yellow Jackets absorbed a 76-55 loss to the Fighting Irish at McCamish Pavilion, falling to 0-11 all-time against one of the preeminent powers of the women’s college game.
The Jackets ran into foul trouble that put their two leading scorers on the bench and the Irish took over from there, gaining enough distance before halftime that Tech could not challenge afterward. Moving the ball in the half-court and in transition, Notre Dame was the picture of efficiency on offense, finishing with 30 assists on 34 field goals and shooting 54.8 percent from the field. All were season highs against Tech (11-4 overall, 1-1 ACC).
“They know now the intensity level you’ve got to play at,” Tech coach MaChelle Joseph said of her team, which started four freshmen and sophomores.
Notre Dame (14-1, 2-0) scored 60 points in the paint to Tech’s 20. Joseph guessed that may be the most ever scored against one of her teams in her 16 seasons as Tech’s head coach.
After Georgia Tech beat Boston College last Thursday in its ACC opener, Joseph looked forward to the test against the Irish, who appear to be even better than they were last season in posting a 35-3 record and earning their second national championship. She felt that, with freshmen and McDonald’s All-Americans Elizabeth Balogun and Elizabeth Dixon to complement guard Francesca Pan, the Jackets had more of a chance against the Irish, whose average margin of victory in their nine ACC wins over Tech was 15 points. An announced crowd of 3,209, lured by free shirts, a flat-screen TV raffle and the chance to witness a powerhouse, may have been similarly curious.
The lesson is that the Jackets, who harbor hopes of making their first NCAA tournament since 2014, have work to do. Balogun was benched with her second foul late in the first quarter and Pan followed with her second early in the second and the Irish took advantage. Ahead 18-15 to start the second, they started the quarter with a 8-0 run and then tacked on an 11-2 spurt to push the lead to 37-19.
“(Balogun) got in foul trouble,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said, explaining her team’s getaway. “She was out most of the second quarter, that hurt them.”
“I put three freshmen in there and they weren’t able to make plays,” Joseph said. “They couldn’t get stops.”
The lead after halftime was never less than 17 and crested at 30. This was despite the fact that Notre Dame was 1 of 10 from 3-point range and 7 of 15 from the free-throw line while star Arike Ogunbowale (the author of the buzzer-beating shots in the national semifinal and championship games last season and later the Dancing With the Stars contestant) was held to 5 of 17 shooting.
“I didn’t think we played well,” McGraw said. “I thought we weren’t focused at the beginning of the game, I didn’t think we executed well, I didn’t think we set good screens, I don’t think we recognized mismatches. Defensively, huge holes. I really thought that was not one of our best games.”
Ogunbowale still put on a show, repeatedly driving to the basket to draw defenders and slipping passes to open teammates under the basket. She finished with 12 assists, twice her previous career high. Joseph called it play worthy of a national player of the year.
“That’s a kid that understands, ‘Hey, my game’s not on today, but I’m going to make my team better,’” Joseph said.
Balogun, in 28 minutes, led the Jackets with 14 points. Dixon added 12 points with seven rebounds. Bothered by Notre Dame’s zone, the Jackets shot 36.1 percent from the field and turned the ball over 20 times, which Notre Dame cashed in for 33 points.
“We’ve got to hit open shots and we’ve got to have better offensive execution against the zone,” Joseph said.
McGraw, whose team could ascend to No. 1 in the upcoming AP poll and also improved to 79-3 in ACC play since joining the league for the 2013-14 season, was gracious in assessing the Jackets.
“Really good young team,” McGraw said. “Just really, really talented. They work hard, they rebound, they’ve got two good shooters, they’ve got a good inside game. I think they’re going to be a great team down the road.”
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