SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman was hoping his 22nd-ranked team could take advantage of the emotions of No. 2 Notre Dame playing on senior night.
The Orange did for 15 minutes.
Syracuse couldn't keep the Fighting Irish down any longer than that, though, as the Orange saw their 15-point lead cut to three points by halftime, then fell behind early in the second half and never recovered en route to a 79-68 loss to the Irish.
"I knew it would be a very emotional night in the arena," Hillsman said. "I thought our players came out in the first half and competed. ... They came out strong in the second half and made their run early and we just didn't recover. Good teams don't let you recover."
Kayla Alexander, who led Syracuse with 24 points and 16 rebounds, said the key was the Irish outrebounded the Orange in the second half and forced 26 turnovers for the game.
"I feel like if we had contained those two, it probably would have been a different ball game," she said.
Skylar Diggins scored 21 points in the first half to get the Irish back in the game and then told Kayla McBride at halftime she was counting on her.
"I went to K-Mac and told her, 'It's all you, baby,' because I was tired," Diggins said. "I told her, 'You're going to take us there.'"
McBride scored a career-high 25 points and Diggins finished with 24 points and eight assists as the Fighting Irish won their 21st straight .
The game was one of starkly different halves. Syracuse had 12 more rebounds than Notre Dame in the first half and had a 47-31 percent advantage in shooting. The Irish turned those numbers around in the second half. They had 13 more rebounds and outshot the Orange 44-32 percent.
Hillsman said the difference was the Orange made their shots in the first half and didn't in the second half, meaning they had to guard the Irish in transition more.
"They came out strong in the second half and made their run early and we just didn't recover," he said.
Alexander, who made her first six shots, but made just one of her next eight shots and finished 10-of-18 from the floor, blamed herself.
"Those were misses that should have been points, so I feel like that's on me," she said.
Notre Dame held its senior night Tuesday even though it still has a home game Monday against third-ranked UConn, hoping to avoid the emotional trappings that come with the event in a game that likely will decide whether the Irish win their second straight Big East or share it with the Huskies. After seeing the Irish hit just 2-of-16 shots to start the game against Syracuse, McGraw was happy with that decision saying the entire team was affected.
"We couldn't make a shot. It was just a little bit of emotion, a little bit trying too hard, a little bit of trying not to let it bother us. I think it was tough in the beginning and everybody got a little bit jittery. Then that's when Sky usually takes over and calms everybody down," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
That's what happened against Syracuse. Diggins scored nine points during a 13-2 run late in the first half to get the Irish back into the game and the Irish took control by opening the second half with a 9-0 run. Syracuse had one last gasp, using an 8-0 run to 65-59 with six minutes left on a pair of baskets by Carmen Tyson-Thomas, who finished with 18 points. But they couldn't get any closer than six the rest of the way as the Irish improved to 26-2 all-time against the Orange.
Diggins said she could feel the emotions of senior night weighing on the team.
"Once we got down I was just telling the team, just stay calm," Diggins said. "We're going to win this game. We're just going to do it the hard way."
The Orange lost their second straight to fall into a tie for third place with Louisville. Those two teams play in the regular-season finale.