Notre Dame guard Lindsay Allen dribbled up the court, her head raised as her eyes scanned the floor, each step faster than the other. She passed halfcourt at full speed, showing no signs of slowing up before initiating the offense.
Before she could pick up her dribble for even a moment, Allen found Fighting Irish guard Jewell Loyd slashing towards the basket.
Instead of using a conventional bounce pass, one that would sufficiently guide Loyd towards the basket, Allen threw up a lob. Loyd soared into the air and caught the lob in motion without pause, laying it in to give No. 4 Notre Dame a 6-3 lead. Fewer than three minutes had gone by in the game, and the Fighting Irish had already made a statement.
“They have the best kids in the country on their team,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “And right now, we don’t have the best kids in the country on our team.”
No. 4 Notre Dame (9-0) demonstrated the poise of a team fraught with experience fresh off a Final Four run with the alley-oop and its near-flawless early shooting, something Michigan is still working to put together. In front of four busloads of green-clad Fighting Irish ticket-holders, the squad made athletic and intelligent plays from the outset, starting the game by going seven-for-10 from the field on its way to an 86-64 victory.
The Wolverines (7-4) countered Notre Dame’s athleticism and awareness in the first half with errant passes, mishandled rebounds that grazed off fingertips and balls swiped out of their hands between dribbles. By halftime, Michigan trailed, 47-23, and committed five more turnovers (13) than made field goals (8).
“This was probably the first opportunity for 98 percent of our team to have ever faced an opponent of this caliber before,” Barnes Arico said.
The Wolverines attempted to adjust to the Fighting Irish’s dynamic offense, size and athleticism throughout the first half, but to little avail. Notre Dame made seamless adjustments and remained unfazed despite any changes Michigan made.
After junior guard Shannon Smith hit two free throws with the clock approaching the seven-minute mark to cut the Wolverines’ deficit to 32-14. Michigan changed things up on defense by employing a full-court press to see if it could control the Fighting Irish’s rapid offense.
The change worked the first time. The Wolverines forced an errant pass as the defense enveloped Notre Dame in the backcourt. Michigan worked quickly on the ensuing possession, but it resulted in a charge by junior guard Nicole Elmblad, one of her six turnovers in the first half.
The Wolverines responded by once again pressing when Notre Dame went to inbound the ball. This time, the Fighting Irish weren’t fooled. With swift passes, they advanced the ball to from the backcourt to under the Wolverine basket in seconds, resulting in a layup from forward Natalie Achonwa. Michigan abandoned the press on Notre Dame’s next possession.
The young Wolverines were able to limit their mistakes, but their youth couldn’t significantly cut into the lead the Fighting Irish’s superior skill and athleticism built up in the first half.
“This was the first time some of our younger teammates played against a team as good as this,” said junior forward Cyesha Goree. “So the way they played, I was really proud of the way they showed their fight and toughness.”
After time expired, Notre Dame briefly greeted its fans and headed off the court, another routine victory in the books for a team that has been around the block many more times than the Wolverines have. And if Michigan ever hopes to become a team of that caliber, it knows that experience, not just talent, make the difference.