Irish pause to celebrate, but remain focused on NCAA tournament

Allen: We saw gaps in Syracuse's defense (0:52)

Notre Dame guard Lindsay Allen explains how their offense was able to exploit Syracuse's defense and the consistent effort the Fighting Irish have been able to put forth to stay atop of the ACC. (0:52)

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Notre Dame added another line to its already impressive season résumé on Sunday, topping Syracuse 68-57 in the ACC title game at Greensboro Coliseum.

The Fighting Irish band greeted the players with "Sweet Caroline" to open the second half, but forget the geography or the stray "Go Duke" signs barely visible amid lime green and loud orange brightening the stands. This conference belongs to the three-time tournament champs, who are 57-1 since moving to the ACC three years ago.

In earning its fourth straight conference tournament title, Notre Dame -- which won the Big East in its final year in the league -- became the first ACC team to three-peat since North Carolina in 2006-08.

While that might be reason for raucous celebration for almost any other program, for the Irish (31-1) it was a matter of checking off another notch en route to what it hopes is a march to the program's second national title. Still, a flurry of confetti raining at the buzzer was about as colorful as the postgame hoopla got.

"It's obviously great," said Madison Cable, who was responsible for 18 points -- all on 3-pointers -- and eight boards. "I don't think that many people have done that, but I think this year we're looking to take it a step further and maybe win the next tournament."

Irish coach Muffet McGraw said her new year's resolution was to "celebrate victories more," but she still likened the stay in Greensboro as "a business trip."

"We came here and did what we needed to do, and we're happy," she said, "But we want more."

Six more, actually. That's the amount of victories it will take for Notre Dame to claim the trophy that has eluded it despite five straight trips to the Final Four. The Fighting Irish's only NCAA title came in 2001.

As usual, a versatile Irish arsenal executed the job methodically: target-practice shooting from tournament MVP Cable (6-of-9 from beyond the arc), superior passing from point guard Lindsay Allen, soft jumpers from sophomore Kathryn Westbeld and stellar interior play from Brianna Turner. The two-time ACC first-teamer finished with the game's lone double-double of 18 points and 11 boards to go with four blocks.

The Irish led by as many as 18 in the second half, and Syracuse (25-7) was able to trim the lead to single digits just once for 30 seconds.

Though the Orange rank No. 1 in the NCAA Division I in turnover margin, Allen played all 40 minutes, turning over the ball twice.

"That was key," McGraw said. "She had the ball in her hands the majority of the time."

Notre Dame shot 56 percent in the first half, picking up steam following a stretch of back-to-back 3-pointers from Cable, a 3-point play from freshman Arike Ogunbowale, and another trey from Cable, a graduate student who had started nine games prior to this season but has started all 31 in 2015-16 to rank second on the team in scoring.

"We had a hard time getting matched up in some situations," admitted Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman, his voice painfully hoarse after a three-day stretch in which the Orange outlasted NC State in the quarterfinals and upset No. 2 seed Louisville on Saturday to advance to their first ACC title game.

Don't underestimate this veteran Syracuse team, Hillsman warned, a group headed by six seniors who want to make it to the second week of the NCAA tournament for the first time. No team has won more games in program history. While they didn't have the horses to contend with Notre Dame in this one -- UConn is the lone team to beat the Irish this season -- the Orange showed they belong.

"We were equally matched," said junior center Briana Day, who scored 17. "We missed some steals, missed some traps, but we're just as good of a team. I'm glad we made it this far. We showed how good we are this tournament."

Added redshirt junior Brittney Sykes: "Coach gives us confidence. He packed four or five suits because he knew we'd be here until Sunday."

"We came here and did what we needed to do, and we're happy. But we want more." Irish coach Muffet McGraw

When these teams met on Jan. 21 in Purcell Pavilion, the Orange trailed 57-29 at the break, pummeled by 67.6 percent shooting from the Irish in the first half. Though a far closer contest this time, the Orange struggled against an underrated Notre Dame defense spearheaded by Turner, the ACC defensive player of the year.

Syracuse's Brianna Butler, the nation's best 3-point shooter, blanked on 6 of 7 attempts. Junior guard Alexis Peterson finished with a game-high 19 points and senior Cornelia Fondren came off the bench for 10 points and eight rebounds, but the Orange never found the fuel that powered them past a Louisville team that had won 22 of its past 23.

Sunday's outcome will likely have minimal impact on the NCAA committee's thinking. The Irish own a No. 1 seed, and the upset of Louisville should be enough for the Orange to host first- and second-round games at the Carrier Dome, a program first. Charlie Creme, espnW's bracketologist, projects Syracuse, 11-1 in its past 12 games, as a No. 4 seed.

"We can win the championship, the NCAA tournament," Hillsman stressed. "Everybody starts off 0-0, so we should get two games at home. We should be a pretty high 4-seed, go on the road to a very favorable matchup, win those two. Final Four, win that one, capture the game, win another and cut down some nets. Normally, that's how it works."

But it was the Irish who held the scissors in Greensboro, demonstrating the ritual with the efficient precision that defines their offense.

"I always expect big things from this group because they never disappoint," McGraw said. "They're willing to put the work in, and they have the attitude and everything we need to get there."