GREENSBORO, N.C. - Notre Dame used a 21-4 run out of the second half gate to build a double-digit lead they would never relinquish, vanquishing Duke 69-53 to claim their first ACC title.
Jewell Loyd scored 26 points and grabbed seven rebounds for the Fighting Irish, earning Most Valuable Player honors for the tournament. Backcourt mate Kayla McBride added 25 and earned a spot on the All-Tournament first team. Duke, for its part, never could find an answer for Notre Dame's sublime guard play.
"They're a terrific team," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "And we didn't do much with McBride and Loyd - much of anything defensively - there. Between not finding them at times and the turnovers, that cost us a little bit."
Notre Dame, as North Carolina associate head coach Andrew Calder said Saturday night, executes at a very high level and continued to impose their will despite the game being deadlocked at 28 at the half. Duke appeared rushed at times in the second half, leading to an uncharacteristic 20 turnovers (13 in the second half). The Irish were credited with 10 steals, and scored 23 points off the Duke miscues.
"The turnovers cannot happen," McCallie lamented following the game. "We have to slow down and stop trying to go at a certain speed. I was disappointed at us in the second half. The second half turnovers were horrific."
Duke played as well as any Irish opponent all year in the first half, despite McBride's 15 points. Haley Peters and Elizabeth Williams both had 10 points at the break, and the Blue Devil defense had forced eight Notre Dame turnovers. That all changed in the second half, when Loyd hit three straight baskets, two of them three-pointers.
Suddenly, what had been a nip-and-tuck championship was well on its way to just another win for the undefeated Fighting Irish.
"I was really pleased with the second half," Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said after the win. "I thought we came out of the locker room and had kind of a renewed energy. I thought we played our game. I thought we played a little bit harder."
McBride was sporting a championship cap and one of the nets from the Greensboro Coliseum baskets during the postgame press conference, but there was little excitement exhibited by the victors on the dais. There was little doubt that the victory was the expected result on their way to a Final Four and possibly, a national title.
"I think it's good for us going into the NCAAs, it's good momentum," McBride said. "But I think we know what are goals are, we know what are expectations are and this was one of them. We're just trying to go on to the next one and take it game by game."
Perhaps the most glaring line on the final box score was the one belonging to Duke senior Tricia Liston. Liston managed just four points on 11 shots, blanketed and frustrated all night by Irish defenders. However, her one "off" night of the tournament did not keep her off the All-Tournament first team along with teammate Williams.
"They really went after (Liston) and they did a great job," McCallie said. "My heart goes out to her. Three charges, I've never seen that before by Tricia. I don't think she's had three charges in her career prior to this game."
In the end, it was Notre Dame's guards that owned the day for the 2014 ACC Tournament championship. The 51 points and 11 rebounds for Loyd and McBride were just more of the same for the Fighting Irish. They will be a number one seed for the NCAA Tournament, and it will be interesting to see (if it gets that far) if Connecticut can match Notre Dame's focus and intensity.
"I thought Jewell and McBride were just unstoppable. The second half Jewell had a stretch where she took over and did so many great things. And Kayla is so dependable all year long, so steady, so consistent. We got some stops, we got the break going, and I thought our transition game really took off in the second half."
For complete coverage and plenty more photo galleries from the tournament, check out our 2014 ACC women's basketball tournament storystream.