LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Initially stunned by an injury to its best player, Notre Dame regrouped with impressive maturity and resolve to earn a conference title and provide Olivia Miles a welcome cheer-up.
Sonia Citron scored 27 points, including four key free throws in the final 1:20, and the No. 10 Irish overcame the loss of Miles to a knee injury to beat Louisville 68-65 on Sunday and clinch the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title.
Miles, who leads the Irish with 14.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 2.1 steals per game, was hurt with 2:35 remaining before halftime while diving for a loose ball. The sophomore became emotional and pounded the floor while being examined by medical personnel. Miles was able to flex her knee and eventually limped off the floor without assistance to applause as she made her way to the locker room.
As Miles was being examined, Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey sought to maintain her team’s focus.
“It was just to stay together and just for us to know that when one person, when our sister goes down, everybody has to step up,” Ivey said. “Everybody just basically just went after it, competed and knew that we’re playing for a little bit more with Olivia out.”
As for Miles’ status, Ivey added, “We’re in the dark on that, not sure what’s going on with her knee. But it was encouraging that she walked off the court. We’ll find out the next couple of days about her.”
Miles returned to the bench in the third quarter with the knee wrapped in ice and eventually a bandage. Through occasional tears as her parents consoled her from behind the bench, Miles watched the young Irish (24-4, 15-3 ACC) rally from a 33-24 halftime deficit and take the lead for good in the fourth quarter before holding on.
KK Bransford’s layup got the Irish within 53-52 before Citron and Cassandre Prosper followed with five consecutive free throws to lead by four. Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith made two free throws, but Citron’s 3-pointer made it 60-55 and maintained that edge as the Cardinals missed two of four from the line.
Citron made two more from the line with 43.3 seconds left to make it 66-61 but missed two after Mykasa Robinson’s layup to open the door for the Cardinals (21-10, 12-6). Van Lith’s left-corner 3-pointer missed, Prosper was fouled on the defensive rebound and then made two with six seconds left to seal it.
Citron, a sophomore guard, made 10 of 14 free throws and 7 of 13 shots with three 3s as the Irish won their sixth in a row and swept Louisville. Bransford and Prosper, both freshman guards, added 14 and points respectively off the bench along with two assists each.
The group effort by the backcourt shut down Louisville’s attempts to tie and helped Notre Dame end an emotional day on a high note.
Van Lith made 10 of 12 free throws to finish with 23 for Louisville, which finished the final 6:44 with just two field goals in the final 35 seconds. Merissah Russell had 12 points and Olivia Cochran 10, but the Cardinals shot just 35% and only made 27% in the fourth quarter.
“Unfortunately for us, our fourth quarter offensively was not what we needed it to be,” coach Jeff Walz said. “But I can’t fault our effort. I thought our kids competed. I thought they played hard. They gave it everything they had.”
Notre Dame: Duke’s loss to North Carolina opened the door for the Irish and they took advantage to gain the No. 1 seed for the ACC Tournament and a double bye. They were picked to finish fourth, three spots below Louisville. That wasn’t easy considering Miles was sitting on the bench with injury, but their underclassmen showed amazing resolve as she looked on.
“With Liv down, I had to take the point,” Citron said. “So that’s a big adjustment. I think our team just did a great job of just focusing possession by possession, not looking at it like, just get a stop score. We’ve been in that position before, we knew what we had to do and it was on defense.”
Louisville: The Cardinals’ loss spoiled the home finales for seniors Morgan Jones, Chrislyn Carr, Norika Konno, Liz Dixon, Josie Williams and Mykasa Robinson (nine points, six rebounds, five assists). One consolation was earning the No. 4 seed and a double bye that delays their ACC Tournament debut until Friday, like it had been for a while.
Notre Dame will face the winner between the No. 8 and 9 seeds in Friday’s quarterfinal of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Louisville will play on Friday as the No. 4 seed against 5/12-13 game winner.
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