by Frank Scicchitano
The women’s basketball team welcomed the No. 2 ranked team in the nation on Tuesday night as they played host to Notre Dame.
It was a tough, physical contest, but the Fighting Irish had too much firepower as they held off the Wildcats for a 59-52 victory.
The loss dropped Villanova’s record to 16-6, 5-4 in the Big East. With the win, Notre Dame remains undefeated in conference play and atop the Big East with an overall record of 21-2.
Villanova started the game very cold, making just one field goal in the first seven and a half minutes as Notre Dame jumped out to a 10-3 lead. After a few sloppy Irish possessions, the ’Cats brought it back to a four-point game.
Sophomore forward Taylor Holeman scored the first nine points for the Wildcats before her senior guard Rachel Roberts knocked down the first three of the game for Villanova. She then followed with a layup to cut the Irish lead to three points.
Holeman would be held scoreless after her hot start while Roberts would go three for six from 3-point range and finish with 14 points.
With just under six minutes remaining in the half, sophomore forward Emily Leer stole the ball and set up Roberts for her second three of the game, tying the game at 19 apiece.
Leer had a big night off the bench for the Wildcats, going six of 11 from the field and leading the team in scoring with 15 points.
Notre Dame stole the momentum away when they went on a 10-2 run in the last five minutes and took a 29-21 lead going into halftime.
Both teams came out strong in the second half as Villanova tried to keep pace with Notre Dame’s hot shooters.
At the 15 minute mark, Leer showed her range when she hit a 3 to make the score 39-32.
Leer knocked down two more a few minutes later and forced Fighting Irish head coach Muffet McGraw to use a timeout as she felt the momentum shifting inside the Pavilion.
The timeout did not affect the Wildcats at all as they kept the pressure on and kept pace with Notre Dame’s deadly scoring.
Following a layup, from senior center Laura Sweeney, junior guard Devon Kane took a pass from senior forward Megan Pearson and drained a three right in front of the Villanova bench to cut the lead to two points with 4:42 remaining.
The big shot caused the Irish to take another timeout, and this time it worked.
They built a quick six-point lead and had some help from a few key missed 3 pointers by Villanova.
Notre Dame missed two free throws with less than 34 seconds remaining, but it was too late as they were able to hold on for the 59-52 victory.
Outstanding All-American Notre Dame senior guard Skylar Diggins started slowly but finished with 14 points after playing every minute of the game.
Junior forward Natalie Achonwa led all scorers with 19 points and her 11 rebounds made her the only player to record a double-double.
Junior guard Kayla McBride and freshman guard Jewell Loyd were the only other players to score for Notre Dame as they pitched in with 16 and 10 points respectively.
Sweeney had a solid night for the Wildcats, shooting five of nine from the field and finishing with 11 points. She was also strong on the boards, securing five rebounds.
Kane’s big 3-pointer late in the second half were her only points of the night as she played 30 minutes off the bench.
The Wildcats’ defense played tremendously, holding a Fighting Irish team that averaged 81.4 points per game to less than 60 points.
They forced 11 turnovers and held Notre Dame under their average field goal percentage.
Villanova also controlled the ball very well and was patient on offense, running the shot clock down below five seconds on the majority of their possessions.
Offensively, the Wildcats shot 36.8 percent from the field while Notre Dame finished at 40.4 percent.
After starting the game off strong on the offensive and defensive glass, Villanova was eventually outrebounded, 33-27.
Despite the excellent performance by their defense, the Wildcats lost the turnover battle as they committed 13 themselves.
“The difference against a high-quality team like that is if you make mistakes,” said Villanova head coach Henry Perretta. “They took advantage of every mistake we made.”
The Fighting Irish remain undefeated in Big East play and only have one lost from Brittney Griner’s No.1 ranked Baylor Bears.
The win was more than just the 21st of the season for Notre Dame as it was a milestone for head coach Muffet McGraw.
She became the 13th coach in Division I history to reach 700 career victories.
This is McGraw’s 25th season at Notre Dame, but her first ever head coaching job was at Archbishop Carroll High School in Radnor, just down the Main Line.
’Nova has lost three of their last four and are now 16-6 overall, with a Big East record of 5-4.
The Wildcats are back in action on Sunday as they host the Marquette Golden Eagles. Tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m.