SALT LAKE CITY — As of late, the Utah women's basketball team has exceeded expectations.
Though the No. 15-seed Utes lost their NCAA Tournament first round matchup to No. 2-seed Notre Dame, 67-54, on Saturday evening, for the most part, the team was happy to have an opportunity to play a team of Notre Dame's caliber.
"First off I'm really proud of my team and how hard they competed today," said Utah interim head coach Anthony Levrets. "For most of the game we played a really good No. 7 (ranked team) to pretty much a dead heat … and I am just really proud of my team and how hard they competed."
Utah (18-17) scored the first points of the game with a Michelle Harrison putback 20 seconds in and the Fighting Irish (27-7) took over from there. The Utes rallied throughout the first half, forcing seven lead changes and six ties.
The lead was never larger than three points for either team throughout the remainder of the first half and Notre Dame held just a three-point lead, 36-33, at the midpoint.
The Fighting Irish opened a 7-0 run to go up by 10 at the start of the second half, a lead the Utes cut into with their own 8-0 run – comprised entirely of buckets from guard Iwalani Rodrigues – but could never completely overcome.
"I think that was all just our defense and it always starts with defense for us," said Utah forward Michelle Plouffe. "When we can't put a string of stops together, that lets our opponent get ahead. When our defense is not going very well and it is not coming together, it affects our offense. We just needed to defend to get on a roll on offense."
Notre Dame outscored the Utes 22-13 over the final 11 minutes to put the game out of reach. The Fighting Irish had just five players score, but four of them reached double-digits, including 20 points apiece from Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel.
"She is an all-around player," Ute point guard Janita Badon said of defending Diggins. "I don't think I have played against a player that can shoot and drive both ways. She knew when to back-cut and knew how to run her team."
Notre Dame's Becca Bruszewski added 13 points, six rebounds and six assists while Devereaux Peters contributed 12 points, six rebounds and four blocks.
For the Utes, Rodrigues scored 21 points, her ninth game with at least 20 points this season. She was 4-for-6 from behind the arc and hit two 3-pointers during her eight-point stretch.
Badon recorded 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists and Plouffe scored seven points with eight rebounds.
"I don't think we did a good job on Badon," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of her team's defense of Utah's junior leader. "She got to the rim anytime she wanted to. We changed our plan on how we were guarding her in the second half and it didn't make any difference, she went by us every time."
Though she was frustrated with the loss, Badon also felt the way she and the Utes competed with the Fighting Irish said a lot about how good the team is.
"Notre Dame is a really good team, but for the most part, we stuck with them so I think that is telling the world a little something about the University of Utah," she said.
Levrets added to Badon's sentiment, saying, "We played well enough to beat most teams in the country today. Just not this top-10 team."
Harrison, a senior forward, had a career night, scoring 10 points and pulling down a career-high 16 board, including nine on the offensive end, in her final game with the Utes. Sophomore forward Diana Rolniak also grabbed seven rebounds, a stat Utah dominated, 41-34.
Aside from the loss, the team was appreciative of the fan support in the Utes' tournament game. After the game, Badon said, "I thank them. They kept us in the game. There were stretches where Notre Dame scored and we didn't, but they were cheering and keeping our heads up. They made us play with heart."
"It's been a great week," Levrets said. "Ever since we won the (Mountain West Conference) tournament and we got home, the buzz around Salt Lake City and around our campus, and department. I really appreciate all of the people who put in the work to make this a fabulous day for our players and the people who are here."
Notre Dame will meet No. 10 Temple in a second round matchup on Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the Huntsman Center.