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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer


Irish begin sprint to January finish line with Syracuse showdown

Notre Dame women’s basketball is closing in on a challenging 51 hours of hoops. Ahead of Saturday’s primetime showdown at No. 8 UConn, the No. 15 Irish will battle No. 22 Syracuse on Thursday night. Among six ACC games Thursday, the game at Purcell Pavilion will be the only ranked matchup.

Syracuse (16-2, 6-1 ACC) enters South Bend on a five-game win streak. Head coach Felisha Legette-Jack has engineered quite the turnaround, inheriting what was an 11-win team two seasons ago.

This year, the Orange enjoyed an excellent non-conference performance, including defeats of Iowa State and Alabama, before downing Notre Dame at home to start ACC play. Though a 75-51 loss at North Carolina set them back, the Orange have not lost since. Most recently, Syracuse edged No. 23 Florida State at home (79-73) and emerged victorious at Pitt (72-59). 

Meanwhile, Niele Ivey and Notre Dame have stabilized after a bumpy start to ACC play. Without any new injury scares, the Irish have won four straight conference games, all by at least 10 points. Coming into the Syracuse game, Notre Dame swept a two-game road trip at Virginia (86-76) and Wake Forest (75-56).

Orange going for program firsts

When looking back at the 36-year series history, Notre Dame owns Syracuse. The Irish hold a 39-4 record against the Orange, including a 19-0 mark at home. Additionally, Notre Dame has never lost both games of a regular season series against Syracuse. But that can change Thursday night.

Syracuse already topped Notre Dame on New Year’s Eve at the JMA Wireless Dome. In the ACC opener for both teams, the Orange survived a 32-point performance from Irish freshman guard Hannah Hidalgo to win 86-81. Prolific Syracuse guard Dyaisha Fair scored 27 herself, with freshman Alyssa Latham adding a 21-point double-double.

Though both teams committed more than 20 turnovers, the Orange earned a decisive advantage on the glass (45-33). Looking ahead to Thursday, Notre Dame must find a way to neutralize Latham and Kyra Wood. The two each average more than 7 rebounds per contest, combining for 22 against the Irish. Overall, Syracuse leads the ACC with almost 17 offensive rebounds on average.

Citron, Hidalgo continue impressive Irish guard play

Beyond missing a few rebounds and an unsuccessful late push to win at Syracuse, Notre Dame also was without its top shooter. But junior guard Sonia Citron will get her crack at the Orange this time. In eight games, five since returning from a knee sprain, she has 18.9 points per game.

Breaking it down, Citron is shooting 51% from the floor, 41.9%  from deep and 94.3% from the foul line. Those numbers are second, first and first among regular Irish contributors.

During the recent road swing, Citron amassed 46 points in two games. Her 28 at Virginia paced the Irish, highlighted by a poised, 12-for-12 free throw-shooting performance. Citron then hit four three-pointers for the first time this season at Wake Forest.

Alongside her in the backcourt, Hidalgo added another line to her remarkable first-year ledger this week. She appeared among the top 10 for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame’s Nancy Lieberman Award, which recognizes the top point guard in women’s NCAA Division I college basketball. Former Irish guard Skylar Diggins took home the award in 2013.

The only freshman on the top 10 list, Hidalgo still leads the ACC with 23.9 points per game, adding a nation-high 5.5 steals per contest. She has scored 20 or more points in all four games of Notre Dame’s current win streak, combining 23 points with 9 assists and 6 steals at Virginia last Thursday.

Flamethrower Fair feasting from deep

Like Notre Dame, guard play jumps off the page when it comes to Syracuse’s offensive production. And the conversation always starts with Dyaisha Fair. The fifth-year guard, a former transfer from Buffalo, shoots the daylights out of the basketball — and usually succeeds. 

Fair leads the ACC with 3.6 triples made per game, clear of second-place Georgia Amoore by 1.1, and good for a 38% success rate. In last Thursday’s ranked win over Florida State, she drained 9 threes, following that showing up with 6 makes Sunday at Pitt. Performances like those have helped her average 20.5 points per game, which ranks third in the conference.

Of course, Fair brings plenty more than deadeye shooting to the table. Her durability makes a difference, evidenced by her ACC-high 35.8 minutes per game. She ranks as the Orange’s top distributor and thief, complementing an impressive 87% make rate at the free throw line. Against Notre Dame, Fair may have to tap into those skills, as the Irish defend the three-ball better than any other team in the ACC.

If the 3,060-point scorer can’t get it done, look for fellow guard Georgia Woolley to factor in. The Aussie junior used late January as a turning point last year, culminating in a 30-point showcase at the WNIT in March. This season, she averages 13.5 points and 2.26 steals per game. Woolley played well on Sunday, dropping 20 points on Pitt with a 3-7 effort from deep.

Like Notre Dame, the Orange will follow Thursday’s game with another ranked matchup over the weekend. Syracuse will welcome No. 19 Virginia Tech on Sunday before opening February at No. 18 Louisville.

However, for both teams, all eyes remain on Purcell Pavilion, where Thursday’s contest will begin at 7 p.m. ACC Network Extra will provide the broadcast.