Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Kayla Alexander's 24 point and 16 rebound performance wasn't enough to spoil Senior Night for Notre Dame (26-1, 14-0). The Irish stormed back after trailing by 15 points in the first half to beat the Orange on Tuesday night.
It was almost as if Hillsman had a crystal ball when he was looking ahead to his team's game in Indiana.
The No. 22/20 Syracuse Orange (22-5, 10-4) dominated the second-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish for chunks of the first half, but ultimately could not complete the historic upset. The Irish held on for a 79-68 win in the Purcell Pavillion.
Early on, the Orange relied on senior leader Kayla Alexander and she answered the call. Alexander started a perfect 6-6 shooting, capped off with a layup to put SU up 26-15 midway into the first half.
"Anytime Kayla (Alexander) can get those kinds of looks, we’re going to be a good basketball team," Hillsman said. "We just wanted to concentrate on getting her the ball down low and we did a good job of doing that."
With 8:37 left in the half and the Orange up 13, Hillsman gave his center a breather. Alexander returned about a minute later, but wasn't the same. She hit a jumper to put SU up 35-21, but then missed her next seven shots.
Syracuse was never able to keep the pressure and add to the 14 point lead. Notre Dame finished the half on a 15-4 run. The Irish didn't go into halftime with the lead, but they had all the momentum.
To start the second half, Notre Dame picked up right where it left off. Syracuse didn't score a field goal until five and a half minutes into the half. The Irish went on a 25-6 run in the first eleven minutes. Notre Dame appeared to be able to cruise to victory, but the Orange didn't quit. Alexander scored six unanswered points and Carmen Tyson-Thomas made jumpers on consecutive possessions. The Irish lead was down to 65-59 with 5:52 to go, but the team didn't panic. Syracuse was not able to cut the deficit to five points the rest of the way.
Alexander notched her tenth double-double of the season and scored a team-high 24 points. Tyson-Thomas finished with 18 points and seven boards.
For the Irish, Kayla McBride had a game-high 25 points to go along with five rebounds. Skylar Diggins scored 24, but don't let the stat line deceive you. She shot 8-22, much worse than the 44 percent shooting she had coming into the game.
SU is usually dominant in the turnover battle, but played sloppy on Tuesday night. The Orange turned the ball over 26 times, almost double the usual output.
Even so, the Orange have to look back on this game in a positive way. Yes, it could have been a potentially program-changing win. But Alexander and her teammates proved that they could hang with the elite teams.
"Our kids are tough kids and they’re going to fight and they’re going to play hard," Hillsman said.
This isn't men's basketball where the top team loses almost every week. In women's basketball, there is a top tier, and then the rest of the bunch miles below. The best teams are next to untouchable. But Notre Dame was embarrased for parts of the first half and needed a 15-0 second half run to avoid being upset in their own building.
The Orange return home to face Villanova on Saturday at 3 p.m. EST. Villanova is 18-8 and beat the Orange 64-59, way back on Jan. 26.