By Luke Meredith
The Associated Press
IOWA CITY, Iowa —
Notre Dame’s reward for earning a No. 1 seed was a trip to Iowa City and a date with Tennessee-Martin, which hardly resembled a No. 16 seed.
The Fighting Irish can go anywhere and beat anyone if they dominate the paint the way they did against the undersized Skyhawks.
Jewell Loyd scored 27 points and Notre Dame blew past Tennessee-Martin 97-64 on Sunday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Kayla McBride had 22 points and 10 rebounds for the Fighting Irish (32-1), who outrebounded UT-Martin 49-14 and enjoyed a 55-22 advantage in points in the paint.
“I thought offensively we really went after it,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “We’re capable of getting to the backboards and boxing out. We did a really good job defensively.”
Heather Butler scored 23 of her season-high 37 points in the first half to keep UT-Martin (19-15) in the game. But Notre Dame closed the first half on an 11-0 run and jumped ahead 60-33 with 17 minutes left.
Notre Dame star Skylar Diggins finished with just 10 points and six assists. But the Fighting Irish didn’t need a big game from the guard in their 27th straight win heading into Tuesday’s second-round matchup with Iowa or Miami.
“I thought their size bothered us,” UT-Martin coach Kevin McMillan said. “There were some problems that we couldn’t simulate, that we didn’t have an answer for.”
UT-Martin entered the tournament with one of the nation’s highest scoring backcourts in the 5-foot-5 Butler and the 5-6 Jasmine Newsome, who combine for 45 points a game.
But Butler and Newsome never saw anything like these Fighting Irish in the Ohio Valley.
Notre Dame was up 10 in less than five minutes, hitting six of its first seven shots for a 14-4 lead.
But instead of folding, the Skyhawks put the ball in Butler’s hands. She keyed a surprising 16-6 run, banking in a pair of 3s and hitting a layup off a nifty back cut to make a game of it.
“She can score in a lot of different ways,” McMillan said. “She’s very quick off ball screens, knows when to pull up, knows when to take it to the basket. She gave us a lot of trouble out there.”
Butler had 23 points in just 16 minutes — or 21 more than her counterpart Diggins at that point — and the Skyhawks got as close as 38-31.
“I thought Butler had probably the best individual game anybody had against us all year long,” McGraw said. “She was phenomenal. She played extremely well. What a great performance by her.”
But Diggins had the help that Butler could have used.
Loyd and Natalie Achonwa combined for 31 first-half points, and Notre Dame’s closing run made it an 18-point game at halftime.
The Fighting Irish then scored 11 of the next 13 points to jump ahead 60-33.
Achonwa added 16 points for Notre Dame.
UT-Martin was winless in three games this season against teams that earned a No. 1 seed for the tournament. The Skyhawks lost to Baylor 82-67 and Stanford 92-68 on back-to-back days in November.
But while the Bears, Cardinal and top-seeded UConn all got to open the NCAA tournament at home, Notre Dame was shipped out to Iowa City.
Although Butler made the Fighting Irish nervous for about 20 minutes, the travel certainly wasn’t a factor in the tournament opener. Newsome was held to 15 points.
“The matchup for us was a nightmare because there wasn’t a player on the Notre Dame team we thought we could take advantage of,” McMillan said. “I thought Butler and Newsome were going to have to have monster games for us to compete. To think those two guards go out as a 16 seed, get 52 points and one gets 37, you can’t ask for anymore.”