SOUTH BEND — Bethune-Cookman coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis was afraid her matchup with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish would turn into a David vs. Goliath one.
Her fear became a reality Saturday afternoon as the Irish used their size advantage to pound the ball inside on the offensive end of the floor, dominating the glass on both ends of the court as the No. 1-seeded Irish rolled over the No. 16 Wildcats, 92-50, in a first-round NCAA Women's Tournament game at Purcell Pavilion.
Notre Dame (31-3) advances to a second-round game Monday, also at home, with the Michigan State Spartans (21-11). Game time is yet to be determined. The Spartans won an 88-87 thriller over the Central Michigan Chippewas in the second contest in South Bend on Saturday afternoon.
"Notre Dame is a veteran team. They are the defending national champions for a reason," Blair-Lewis said. "The size of their starting lineup is about that of our men's basketball team. It was the difference in the game, by making it hard for us to get the ball inside."
Four members of the Notre Dame starting five are 6-foot or taller, led by 6-4 senior Jessica Shepard, 6-3 graduate senior Brianne Turner and 6-foot junior Jackie Young.
"We knew coming in they were smaller. The coaches emphasized it in practice all week," Turner said.
Shepard notched a double-double with 22 points and 13 rebounds while Turner and 6-3 sophomore Mikayla Vaughn just missed out on the feat. Turner finished with 19 points and nine rebounds while Vaughn had nine and 11 coming off the bench.
"Our post players performed well. Jess (Shepard) had a double-double and Turner missed by one. I guess I should have played her a little longer," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "Mikayla did a good job of reading the defense. She had a couple of opportunities when we were running plays for someone else that she found a way to get open and take advantage of it."
Vaughn's 11 rebounds were a season and career high, topping the eight she had against Louisville on Jan. 10.
The Irish took very little time flexing their muscles, scoring on the opening tip-off. Turner jumped at center and tipped the ball to the Irish side of the court, where senior Arike Ogunbowale was waiting. She passed the ball to Shepard, who was streaking to the basket for the layup and a 2-0 lead five seconds in.
The Irish opened a 9-3 advantage on a 3-pointer by Young at 6:34 of the first. Baskets by sophomore Amaya Scott and freshman Camary Harris allowed the Wildcats to cut the deficit to two points (9-7) at 5:30.
A media timeout gave the Irish a chance to regroup and go on a 20-5 run for a 17-point lead (29-12) at the end of the opening stanza.
"We were having trouble finding their shooters, and the timeout got us more focused," McGraw said.
One of the BC shooters the coach was referring to was senior Angel Golden, who scored 11 of her team's 19 points in the first half. She finished with a game-high 25 points.
"We worked a couple of days in practice focusing on one player. We have a long way to go if we are going to be a good defensive team," McGraw said. "Tuner saved us several times."
Turner blocked five shots and altered several more. The Notre Dame defense held the Wildcats scoreless from 1:47 of the first period to 2:43 of the second as the team went on a 25-0 run. The Irish led 51-19 at halftime.
The size advantage allowed the Irish to outscore the Wildcats 30-6 in the paint and 12-0 in second-chance points in the opening half. Ogunbowale tossed in 23 points to lead the Irish.
This was not an easy week for McGraw and her team. Senior Marina Mabrey hyper-extended a knee, and Shepard was diagnosed with strep throat.
"Marina didn't practice much, and we were not sure whether or not we would have her today," the coach said. "Jess was also limited in her practice time."
Mabrey didn't score but dished out a game-high seven assists. Shepard wasn't about to let the illness keep her on the sidelines Saturday.
"This time of year, sick or not, I'm playing," she said after recording her 15th double-double of the season.
McGraw shared it was a frustrating week.
"You would not have wanted to be around me. I think Matt (McGraw's husband) had his hair turn completely gray this week," she quipped. "It was one of those weeks where we didn't know until practice who was going to be in practice. There were a lot of things we couldn't control. You just have to move on, but that was hard for me to do that."
Blair-Lewis can relate as five of her players underwent knee surgeries this season.
"What a great job it was by Bethune-Cookman to get to this point of making their first-ever NCAA tourney appearance," McGraw said.
Blair-Lewis said, "I would like to thank Notre Dame for being first class and giving us an experience we will never forget. We represented our university and conference (Mid-Eastern Athletic) well. I'm proud of the step forward our team took this season."
Greg Keim can be reached at email@example.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 326. Follow Greg on Twitter @gkeim_TGN