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Irish Women Continue Excellence

Notre Dame’s football program entered the month of January with a No. 1 ranking, until its national title dreams ended in the rubble of a 42-14 loss to Alabama. Shortly thereafter, off-the-field drama went off the charts. First Brian Kelly briefly flirted with the Philadelphia Eagles’ job opening. Next, consensus All-America linebacker Manti Te’o made national headlines as a victim of an elaborate hoax that revealed his “girlfriend” who passed away in September never actually existed.

Junior Natalie Achonwa recorded her 10th double-double of the year with 16 points and 12 rebounds in just 23 minutes against St. John's.

The men’s basketball team, after tying its longest winning streak (12, just like football) since 1954, had a rare defeat at home (UConn) before suffering another upset at St. John’s.

Men’s hockey climbed up to No. 3 in one national poll, but has now lost some traction with four consecutive defeats, including back-to-back one-goal losses at home this weekend to Alaska.

Amid what has become an unsettling first part of January in the Notre Dame athletics department, the No. 2-ranked Notre Dame women’s basketball program, national runner-ups each of the past two years, has retained its excellence in what was supposed to be a “rebuilding year” after losing three starters from last season.

With its 74-50 rout of previous Big East unbeaten St. John’s on Sunday afternoon at the Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame won its 11th consecutive game while improving to 16-1 overall and 5-0 in the Big East. The streak has been highlighted by the 73-72 win at then No. 1 Connecticut on Jan. 5.

In addition to the Huskies, 26th-year head coach Muffet McGraw’s Irish have defeated four other ranked teams: Ohio State, UCLA, Texas A&M and Purdue. The lone loss was to current No. 1 and defending national champ Baylor after leading 50-49 with less than eight minutes left.

Against the Red Storm, senior All-America point guard Skylar Diggins tallied 18 points, pulled in six rebounds to go with six assists, made three steals and had only two turnovers in 30 minutes. Junior center Natalie Achonwa, who appears to have benefitted significantly from playing in the Summer Olympics with the Canadian National Team, posted her 10th double-double of the year with 16 points and 12 rebounds in just 23 minutes, and also dished out three assists. More than half of Notre Dame’s 74 points came in the paint (38). For the year Achonwa is averaging 14.2 points and 9.3 rebounds, and has provided the high-low game every program covets.

"That really makes us hard to guard," McGraw said. "If you think about trying to double-team inside on Natalie, you have to worry about the shooters on the perimeter. You can't really zone us when we shoot that well. You have to play man-to-man, and we like our man-to-man offense."

Although the team’s second-leading scorer, junior Kayla McBride (14.7 points per game), was held to six points, sophomore Madison Cable compensated with 13 off the bench while drilling all three of her three-point attempts.

Entering this past weekend, Notre Dame was second only to UConn in scoring offense with its 83.3 figure, compared to the Huskies’ 83.8. Freshman Jewell Loyd (12.8 points per game) rounds out the double-figure scoring, while Ariel Braker and Markisha Wright between them combine for 11.5 points and 9.0 rebounds per outing. Freshman Michaela Mabrey joins Cable as one of the team’s top three-point threats.

All in all, the Irish appear poised for a third straight Final Four appearance, and fifth overall under McGraw, who is five wins away from becoming the 13th coach in NCAA Division I history to record 700 victories.

In a world of upheaval and ebbs and flows, the Notre Dame women’s basketball program has remained a model of consistent excellence.

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