Notre Dame upsets NC State in ACC title game. Four takeaways from the Pack’s loss

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With 26 seconds left on the clock, and the Wolflack down by two, Saniya Rivers dribbled down the court. She passed the ball toward the right corner, but no one was there.

Turnover, Irish ball, game essentially over.

No. 4 seed Notre Dame (26-6, 13-5 ACC) upset No. 2 seed N.C. State (27-6, 13-5 ACC), 54-51, on Sunday in the ACC Tournament Championship.

“We’ve had a lot of close games, and they’ve found a way to get it done. A couple of possessions here today were the difference,” Pack head coach Wes Moore said. “As a coach, that’s hard, because I feel like maybe I could have done this different, or that different and put them in a better position.”

N.C. State held Notre Dame, which averages almost 80 points per game, under 60. . It should’ve been enough, but late-game breakdowns — Notre Dame finished on a 12-2 run untimely mistakes and streaky offense cost the Wolfpack a title.

“It sucks. I mean, getting all the way to the championship game and obviously losing. It’s not a good feeling at all right now,” Madison Hayes said. “This hurts, but, you know, I felt like we were fighting. This is gonna sting for a while, but we’ve just gotta get back to work.”

River Baldwin led N.C. Statewith 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting and seven rebounds. Aziaha James recorded 12 points, six rebounds and five assists.

The Wolfpack shot 3 of 17 from 3-point range, while allowing the Irish to go 8 of 17 from the arc.

Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo led all scorers with 22 points. The ACC Rookie of the Year added six rebounds and six assists.

This was N.C. State’s 16th championship appearance and fourth in five years. Notre Dame made its seventh appearance and second straight.

“The bond; it’s so strong that it no matter if we lose or win, we still have each other no matter what,” James said. “We always got each other’s back. We’re a sisterhood around here. I love this team. I wouldn’t to pick any other bunch of girls but these girls.”

Despite the loss, N.C. State’s season is not over. Bracketology experts predict both teams will host games n the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Selection Sunday is 8 p.m. March 17 on ESPN.

The team plans to take a few days off for spring break before resuming activities.

“We gotta take it to heart. I feel like Notre Dame played really well today,” Hayes said. “They had a really great game. They hit a lot of 3s today. We’ve just got to come back focused, ready to go, ready to host at our gym. We’ll have the fans there — 5,500 people that are ready to support us — so we’ve got to do it for us and for them.”

Here are four takeaways from the Wolfpack’s title game loss.

Irish limits Pack shooting

N.C. State didn’t carry its high-scoring offense from its win against Florida State into Sunday, but Notre Dame deserves a lot of credit for that.

Notre Dame’s defense made things difficult for the Wolfpack to find clean shots. It regularly double-teamed the primary shooters and forced N.C. State outside with its zone. Notre Dame had a 28-22 halftime lead.

The Wolfpack established its paint presence in the second half, returning to the floor with a renewed sense of energy — and urgency. N.C. State scored 21 points in the third quarter, nearly matching its first half total.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t keep that up into the fourth quarter.

Just like in the second quarter, the Irish held the Pack to single digits.

The Wolfpack finished the first half with eight points in the paint and 22 total. It averaged 34 in its last four games, including 42 against the Seminoles on Saturday.

“Give credit to Notre Dame defensively. We just struggled to score the ball,” Moore said. “I thought the third quarter we did a better job of getting in attack mode and getting post touches. Then, we were 3-for-17 from 3. At some point against the zone, you’d like to knock down a couple more of those.”

River Baldwin’s clutch shots not enough

Experience matters in the postseason, and Baldwin came up clutch on Sunday. The graduate student made a layup in the third quarter to tie the game at 35. Two minutes later, Baldwin added another layup to retake the lead.

“I think I was down in the first half and my teammates picked me up at halftime, just saying, ‘Use your body, use your physicality,’” Baldwin said of her late surge. “I had a size and strength advantage, so just using that to benefit myself.”

Baldwin struggled in the Wolfpack’s outing on Saturday, finishing with just seven points on 3-of-11 shooting. She started 1 of 9.

Young players may be rattled by a performance like Baldwin’s in the semifinals, but the center showed no signs of fear in Sunday’s showdown.

Zoe Brooks flashed her future

The freshman guard has a promising career ahead of her. Brooks deserves credit for her contributions in the biggest game of the season so far.

Early in the second quarter, Brooks successfully found James for a behind-the-back pass and layup. She added a hook shot three minutes into the third quarter.

Brooks went toe-to-toe with Irish players on both sides, notably muscling through traffic for seven rebounds and two blocks.

Unfortunately, like Baldwin, her plays weren’t quite enough to lift the Pack over the Irish.

Controversial officiating

The refereeing crew limited its whistle use in the early minutes, much to the dismay of both benches and fan bases.

In the first half, the Wolfpack had an argument as Notre Dame initiated plenty of contact.

Baldwin scored a jumper with 20 seconds left in the second half that could’ve been an and-1, but she didn’t get the call.

Notre Dame’s Maddy Westbeld, during an Irish possession, collided with Aziaha James in a move officials had been calling a charge in previous tournament games.

On a subsequent trip down the floor, James did not get a foul when attempting a jumper. Instead, she grabbed her own rebound and scored the put back.

The Irish, however, had its own qualms as the game continued. For example, Hidalgo was called for a foul on Mimi Collins in the third quarter that looked clean.

In the fourth quarter, N.C. State coach Moore appeared to dare the officials to give him a technical after arguing against a call.

Multiple coaches incurred fines this season, including North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart, for criticizing the league’s inconsistent officiating. At times, it felt like that inconsistency once again overshadowed the game.