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'Sky'-High Irish Rally To Victory

Skylar Diggins was not going to allow her Senior Night at Notre Dame be ruined with a rare loss.

Skylar Diggins thanks the crowd on Senior Night prior to rallying Notre Dame to a 79-68 win against No. 22 Syracuse with 24 points, eight assists and six steals.

With Notre Dame trailing 22-7 and junior center Natalie Achonwa sitting the final 16:28 of the first half with two fouls, Diggins willed her No. 2-ranked Irish back to trail by only three at halftime (43-40) en route to a 79-68 victory against a game, athletic No. 22-ranked Syracuse Orange on Tuesday night at Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame improved to 26-1 overall, 14-0 in the Big East and extended its winning streak to 21, tying it with last year’s national title runner-up for second most in school history.

Diggins scored 21 of her 24 points in the first half when the game appeared to be getting away from the Irish against a confident and aggressive Orange (22-5, 10-4). She also finished with a game-high eight assists and six steals, moving her in the latter category within two of breaking Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey’s career record total of 348.

In the second half, she managed the game while letting all of her teammates, particularly junior Kayla McBride, get into a better team rhythm. McBride tallied a game-high 25 points — her career high — and became the 31st Notre Dame player to eclipse the 1,000-point mark during her career.

“My job is to just be a leader, do whatever we need to win,” Diggins said. “…At halftime I said to Kayla McBride, ‘It’s all you, baby' — because I was tired.”

McBride opened the second half with a quick bucket and then Achonwa scored her initial bucket to give Notre Dame its first lead (44-43) of the contest. From there, the Irish gradually pulled away and enjoyed their largest lead at 65-49 before the Orange made one last push with a 12-2 run to make it 67-61. Back-to-back buckets by freshman Jewell Loyd and McBride pushed the lead back up to double digits.

Despite missing almost all of the first half, Achonwa recorded her 15th double-double (11 points, 12 rebounds) of the season, one short of tying Katryna Gaither’s school record set during the 1996-97 Final Four campaign.

The difference with Achonwa in the lineup was pronounced. In the first half, Syracuse owned the paint, including a 32-20 rebounding advantage. In the second half with Achonwa playing the full 20 minutes, Notre Dame had a 26-13 advantage on the boards. Also pivotal was the Irish defense forcing 26 turnovers while limiting its own miscues to 15.

When Achonwa picked up her second foul less than four minutes into the game, Syracuse senior center Kayla Alexander took control. She entered the contest with nine double-doubles, second in the Big East to Achonwa, and already had 16 points and nine rebounds by halftime. Alexander finished with 24 points and 16 rebounds — but after making her first six shot attempts, she was four of 12.

Diggins spearheaded a fierce rally that cut the Irish deficit to only 43-40 at halftime. The All-American scored nine points during a 13-2 spurt that narrowed the margin to 39-36.

Sophomore Markisha Wright played nine minutes in the first half because of Achonwa’s foul problem and became an unsung hero while helping neutralize Alexander in the closing minutes. She made two steals in the post, scrambled hard on the floor for a loose ball that resulted in a Diggins three, and scored with one second left until halftime off an offensive rebound to make it 43-40 and provide huge momentum. At that point, Diggins knew there was no way Notre Dame would be on the losing end.

“It was crazy out there tonight. We may have been pressing early a little bit when we were trying to get off to a good start, but it was a physical game today,” said Diggins, who took several hard spills to the floor, including one late in the game that hurt her back.

Fellow senior Kaila Turner started in the four-guard lineup against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone and finished with nine points on 4 of 6 shooting from the floor, highlighted by a trey on a pass from Diggins to make it 58-49.

The Irish are 8-1 this year against the AP Top 25, including six straight wins.

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