Faith Randolph has rarely seen a shot she doesn't think she can make, and when the ones she takes are falling, the offensive lift she gives Virginia can make them dangerous to even top-flight teams.
Second-ranked Notre Dame got a look at that on Sunday as Randolph made 10 of 17 shots, scored a career-high 23 points and had the Cavaliers on the verge of an upset before they fell short, 79-72.
"We put our best athlete on her but that didn't help at all," Notre Dame coach, Muffet McGraw, said, referring to Jewell Loyd. "We actually had a plan for guarding her that we didn't follow.
"Boy, when she gets hot there's really no stopping her."
The loss came at the start of a stretch of four consecutive games against ranked teams for the Cavaliers (8-8, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), and coach Joanne Boyle came away greatly encouraged.
"We've been young, and our youth is maturing," she said, noting the when Notre Dame started the second half with an 8-2 run, stretching its lead to 51-38, the Cavaliers showed themselves something but not letting the Irish run away.
"It's a testament to the team," Boyle said of the rally that made it a close game to the finish. "They just feel like they're always going to be in a game. That's what games like this do for you."
The Cavaliers next play at No. 3 Duke and then host No. 18 Florida State and No. 6 Maryland, and forward Sarah Imovbioh said she hopes to see more of the same from Randolph, the Cavaliers' sixth man.
"I know she's going to bring that energy, that intensity, and she will drive really hard to the basket," Imovbioh said after scoring 18 points and grabbing 12 rebounds against the taller Irish.
For Notre Dame (15-0, 3-0 ACC), Natalie Achonwa scored a career-high 26 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, Kayla McBride added 23 points and five assists and Loyd scored 17.
The Cavaliers were coming of a victory at Virginia Tech in which they rallied from 17 points down to win, but couldn't quite repeat the feat despite getting within 71-69 with 3:49 remaining.
That's when McBride and Achonwa took over, scoring the game's next six points.
Virginia was outscored 20-8 at the free throw line and outrebounded 47-39.
Notre Dame led 43-36 at halftime and seemed poised to blow the game open with it opened the second half on an 8-2 run to go ahead 51-38. Achonwa had five points and Loyd hit a 3-pointer, but after a timeout, Virginia got three consecutive baskets from Randolph to begin a stirring comeback.
The Irish rebuilt their lead to 61-51, but an 11-4 run by Virginia pulled them within three. Randolph had five points in the burst fed Ataira Franklin for another basket to get the Cavs within 65-62.
Three times the Irish scored to stretch their lead to five, and each time Virginia responded. finally getting the margin down to 71-69 on Imovbioh's free throw with 3:49 remaining. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, Imovbioh missed her first two free throws on the trip before Franklin rebounded the second.
With its lead smaller than its had been since late in the first half, Notre Dame got a tough driving basket from McBride, rebounded a Virginia miss and got two free throws by Achonwa, and then followed a turnover by the Cavaliers with Achonwa's inside basket, extending the lead to 77-69 with 1:14 left.
The game was close throughout the first half. Virginia led 25-24 with 6½ minutes left until the Fighting Irish went on a 15-7 run that featured three consecutive jumper by McBride. Michaela Mabrey finished the burst with a 3-pointer, giving Notre Dame a 39-32 lead, and it was 43-36 at the half.
Achonwa had 11 points, 10 rebounds and three assists by halftime.
Follow Hank on twitter at: http://twitter.com/hankkurzjr