Fighting Irish move step closer to Big East title with win over Louisville

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Skylar Diggins felt the pressure building during Notre Dame's 21-game win streak. Now that it's firmly in the past, the guard and her teammates have their swagger back.

Diggins scored 21 points and freshman Kayla McBride added 15 to lead the Fighting Irish (No. 4 ESPN/USA Today, No. 3 AP) over Louisville (No. 16 ESPN/USA Today, No. 19 AP) by a 68-52 score on Monday and moving them one step closer to a Big East title.

"I think we're finally getting back to playing with our swag, playing our style of basketball. And it feels good. We're having fun out there again," said Diggins, who added seven assists. "We're smiling, we're laughing, you know what I mean? With that tough schedule, we took it too serious, kind of lost the fun in it."

Notre Dame (26-2, 13-1) has won two straight since losing at home to West Virginia and controls its destiny in its quest for its first regular-season league championship since 2001, when the Irish tied Connecticut on the way to the national title.

Notre Dame is a game up in the loss column against the Huskies with a game left against South Florida on Saturday before playing at Connecticut next Monday.

Louisville guard Shoni Schimmel said she'd pick the Irish if forced to choose after the Cardinals also lost to the Huskies at home on Feb. 7.

"I would say Notre Dame, just because they're older and they're wiser," Schimmel said. "UConn is pretty young, so I'd say Notre Dame."

Antonita Slaughter scored 12 points for the Cardinals (19-8, 8-6), who failed to reach the 20-win plateau with their fourth loss in six games.

Brittany Mallory had 13 points, and Devereaux Peters added 10 points and nine rebounds for Notre Dame, which shot 61.9 percent in the second half to pull away.

"It's contagious when one of us is hitting," Diggins said. "It's a point guard's dream just to be able to pass to anybody and have the confidence they're going to make the shot."

The Irish struggled from the field in the first half before using a 12-4 run early in the second to take their first double-digit lead when Peters had a layup and made two free throws on the next possession to put Notre Dame ahead 44-33.

After Louisville cut it to 46-39 on a layup by Shawnta Dyer off a pass from Schimmel with 8:55 left, Mallory answered with a 3-pointer in the left corner following a timeout. She pumped her fist and clapped twice on a play that thwarted a potential run and silenced the Louisville crowd.

"We just could not come out with that big stop. We've got it to seven with under nine (minutes), and then have a little bit of a breakdown on defense and give up a three," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "We did not finish out the game the last three minutes as hard as we had played the first 37 minutes. So then it looks like it's a 16-point game and an easy win for them."

Mallory's shot turned out to be a big one. The Cardinals missed 14 of their 16 3-point attempts as Notre Dame surged ahead.

Diggins hit 11 of 12 free throws, and Notre Dame finished 17 of 18 overall, matching its best shooting performance at the line since Jan. 16, 2008 against Villanova.

Notre Dame came in as the nation's highest-scoring team, but had to shake off a sluggish start. In one sequence late in the first half, Peters made a steal, but then threw a long outlet pass that was easily intercepted by Louisville guard Becky Burke.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw glared at Peters, who just looked down at the floor after the mistake in the midst of the Irish missing their final eight shots and committing two turnovers before halftime.

Still, Kaila Turner's 3-pointer was the difference, giving Notre Dame a 28-25 lead at the break. The Irish looked like a different team when they returned to the floor.

"I thought we looked like our old selves again, we scored the ball well, shot the ball well, passed it well," McGraw said. "Did pretty much everything we needed to do in the second half and was really pleased with that."

Senior guard Fraderica Miller, who fainted after Notre Dame's win against Providence on Tuesday and spent the night in the hospital, went scoreless in six minutes.