It was a tough night for higher seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament, as No. 1 South Carolina, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 Ohio State were all sent home by lower-seeded teams.
Add No. 1 Notre Dame to that list in perhaps the biggest shock of them all. The Irish got into a hole early against No. 4 Stanford in the Lexington Regional semifinal on Friday night and could never recover en route to a 90-84 loss.
Notre Dame finished the season 33-2 and had its run of five straight Final Four appearances snapped. The Irish played in the national title game four times during that run.
Stanford’s leading scorer Erica McCall paced both teams with a career-high 27 points, while Karlie Samuelson added 20 on 5-for-6 three-point shooting. Kaylee Johnson had 17 points while Lili Thompson and Marta Sniezek each totaled 11 for the Cardinal (27-7).
For the second straight game, Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen led the Irish with 20 points, while Brianna Turner added 16 points – all in the second half – and 10 rebounds and Madison Cable chipped in 12.
“I thought Stanford was the better team today,” said Irish head coach Muffet McGraw. “They played extremely well. I thought McCall was phenomenal, and we just didn't have an answer for her in the first half. Defensively we just couldn't guard them. I thought we made a nice run in the second half and then they threw in the bank three almost from half court, and that was pretty much the game.”
About halfway through the first period Stanford started to heat up offensively, and Allen found herself on the bench with two personal fouls to go with five early points. Compounding the problem was that Turner only took four shots in the first half, and missed all of them. Kristina Nelson led the Irish through two quarters with eight points. She’d scored just 12 points in Notre Dame’s previous five games combined.
The Cardinal, behind 19 points from McCall, led 50-39 at half against an Irish defense that had been allowing just 60.4 points per game. Stanford shot a blazing 64.5 percent and connected on 6-of-9 three-point attempts in those opening two quarters.
Still, the Irish never panicked. After all, Notre Dame had won 27 straight games decided by single digits or in overtime.
“I don't think we ever panic in those situations,” Allen stated. “We figure out a way to dig down deep and get stops and convert on our offense. But you can't spot a team with that kind of shooting percentage in the first half and expect to kind of dig your way out of the hole in the second half. It was tougher because they still shot really well in the second half.”
As expected, Notre Dame did make a couple of runs in the second half. After trailing by as many as 15 points, the Irish cut the Cardinal lead to 81-78 on a Cable bucket with just over two minutes remaining. But that was as close as Notre Dame would get. On their next possession, the Samuelson answered by banking in a trey as the shot clock expired to help seal it.
“The three that Samuelson hit with the shot clock going off with two seconds left and banked it in … that was one of those nights for them,” McGraw said. “They managed to make big plays. They made the free throws down the stretch. They did everything they needed to do to win. I think normally you have to have the other team help you out. When you're trying to come back, they have to miss some shots and we just couldn't get them to miss.
“But I am so proud of the seniors and what they’ve done for our team. It's been a great season, (and we shouldn’t) put our heads down. Stanford played a great game. They were the better team today. We've had a great season. We've had a nice run, and hopefully that will motivate us to come back next year. We've been on the other side of this, and now it's our turn to go home early and work on next year.”