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ND WOMENS BASKETBALL: Irish's lack of size, depth leads to 61-57 loss to Tar Heels

Jan. 7—SOUTH BEND — Just six players deep, Notre Dame's limited personnel wasn't enough Sunday to save themselves from dropping another conference game, this time to the defensive-specialist North Carolina Tar Heels in South Bend.

The revolving door of Notre Dame's injury list continued to spin with junior guard Sonia Citron making her first appearance back from a knee injury suffered in the home opener back on Nov. 15. Citron led Notre Dame with 18 points, but it wasn't enough to overcome the team's 19-of-61 shooting from the floor in the 61-57 loss to the Heels.

"It's the cards that we've been dealt right now and so there are no excuses with what we're dealing with," Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey said afterwards. "It is frustrating because we're literally right there. I thought that we had a stretch where we went up four but unfortunately had a couple turnovers and gave North Carolina the lead."

No. 16 Notre Dame (10-3, 1-2 ACC) trailed for most of the night, but found its first lead of the game since the first quarter when Hannah Hidalgo converted a layup and a foul shot to give Notre Dame a 38-33 lead midway through the third quarter.

The Irish struggled to find success in the paint with senior forward Maddy Westbeld out with a concussion suffered earlier this week at Pittsburgh. Westbeld's absence made the difference when North Carolina Indya Nivar started the fourth quarter on a personal 7-0 run on backdoor layups when the Irish weren't looking.

That string became a Tar Heel 12-0 run and reclaimed the lead at 54-46. Notre Dame would only tie the game once more before the Heels defense stood tall and brought home the road win over the Irish.

"I think the last two games that we've lost is because of the mental lapse offensively turning the ball over or defensively just missing assignments," Ivey said, also pointing out later that Notre Dame was outscored in the paint 36-20.

"That's something that we're always trying to do is outscore them in the paint and that was a struggle just not having more points in the paint," she said.

North Carolina moved to 11-4 and 3-0 in the conference. The Tar Heels received the most votes outside the Associated Press's Top 25 this week, making it a strong belief that UNC will be among the ACC's ranked teams come next week.

Despite Notre Dame averaging the most points a game offensively than anyone else in the conference (87.4), North Carolina's defense, which stood second in the ACC at allowing just over 56 points a game, was the enforcer in South Bend. The Heel's switched their scheme multiple times on Ivey's limited group.

"I thought their zone really slowed us down because they were in man most of the game so when they went to that zone it really slowed us down," the Irish coach said. "We had 10 assists and 14 turnovers. Our turnovers led to layups."

Notre Dame lost its second game in three tries. This time, the freshman standout Hidalgo (17 points, 11 rebounds) wasn't able to do enough to carry her team forward. The size and physical bunch resting under the Irish's basket made sure of that.

"We changed it up, going under ball screens and having people in the gaps," North Carolina guard Lexi Donarski said about containing the ACC's leading scorer Hidalgo. "It was really just our effort; our bigs were really solid and in the rights spots where they were supposed to be and be that second line of defense."

Notre Dame didn't make it public that Citron would be available for Sunday's game or that Westbeld was still concussed. That changed up the Heel's defensive gameplan.

"We loved the Alyssa [Ustby] and [Maddie] Westbeld matchup," North Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart said. "When I heard she wasn't playing I was like 'oh wait, we've been focusing on what we were gonna do when Westbeld was in ball screens.' I've known Sonia Citron for a long time... I wasn't jumping for joy when I heard she was playing."

Despite the new information at tipoff, North Carolina pressured Notre Dame and limited any type of transition game, something the Irish have been known to excel at.

"I thought our offense was a little bit stagnant as we began the game and then we got into a half-court game and I feel like we're better in transition," Ivey said. "I think us pushing pace is better for our identity."

CITRON'S RETURN

Notre Dame's loss stings due to Citron's welcome back to the court for the first time in seven weeks. However, the team that currently goes six-deep came feel some positives with Westbeld only facing a concussion and is "day-to-day" according to Ivey.

"On the bright side I'm just happy Sonia Citron is back," Ivey said. "For her to come back and play this game without much practicing, playing 37 minutes and being our leading scorer, you could tell she is our glue and did a great job of taking that load off of my guard play."

"I'm encouraged that I'm getting a little bit healthier."

Citron felt like her first minutes in over the month went smooth.

It's great to be back," the junior said. "Honestly, the 37 minutes didn't feel too bad. The only thing was I started getting cramps at the end of the game in both my claves. Everything else was pretty solid."

INJURY RADAR

Freshman Emma Risch is the only Irish player known to be out for the season. Her surgery earlier this month was successful.

Olivia Miles is still waiting for her first minutes this season while Cass Prosper and Jenna Brown join Miles and Westbeld on the bench. There is still no timetable on any of those players return.

Notre Dame stays put in South Bend and will welcome in Boston College (9-7, 1-2 ACC) this Thursday at 7 p.m.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

North Carolina — 20; 11; 14; 16 — 61

#16 Notre Dame — 12; 16; 18; 11 — 57

Reach Matt Lucas at 574-533-2151, ext. 240325, or at matt.lucas@goshennews.com.