PHILADELPHIA — It wasn't the kind of start that Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw wanted, but she'll take the final numbers on the scoreboard hanging over The Pavilion court on the campus of Villanova University.
Overcoming a slow start against a team that elevates sluggish to an art form, No. 9 Notre Dame outlasted a deliberate Villanova team, 58-43, Saturday in Big East Conference college women's basketball. The victory is Notre Dame's 13th in its last 14 games.
No. 9 Notre Dame (18-4 overall, 7-1 Big East) returns home Tuesday to take on Syracuse (7 p.m. tipoff). Villanova (8-12, 0-7) visits Marquette on Tuesday.
Devereaux Peters powered inside for 20 points and nine rebounds to lead the Irish. Skylar Diggins scored 13 and Natalie Novosel 11.
Irish senior Becca Bruszewski earned a double-double, with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Bruszewski needs five points to reach the 1,000-point mark in her career.
Notre Dame trailed 7-2, its largest deficit in Big East play and its largest deficit since playing at Baylor on Dec. 1 (a 76-65 loss). The Irish used a 13-0 run late in the first half to forge a 32-20 halftime lead, and never let the Wildcats within six after that point.
"We just wanted to survive and get out of here," McGraw said. "That is exactly what we wanted to do. This game is so hard to prepare for. We had a week off. We were flat coming in. It was a late game on a Saturday. I didn't feel like we had the energy at the beginning of the game that we needed. I am just really glad to get this game behind me.
"This feels like a blowout, to me," McGraw said. "Fifteen, that's a blowout against Villanova. They're going to hold the ball. West Virginia beat them 39-36. If they're going to cut the game in half, then we're going to cut our scoring in half. I was happy defensively that we held them to 43. I feel like (15) was a lot of points to beat them by."
Notre Dame took advantage of Villanova's leading scorer Laura Sweeney sitting on the bench with two fouls to go on its 13-0 run. Clamping down on defense, the Irish held Villanova without a field goal for seven minutes and 13 seconds. Meanwhile, the transition game kicked in for Notre Dame, as the Irish went from a 19-18 lead to a 32-20 halftime edge.
Villanova closed to six points, 36-30, but the Irish reeled off a 7-0 run for some double-digit separation at 43-30. Notre Dame's defensive pressure allowed the Irish to maintain the upperhand to the finish.
Peters was one of the few Irish players to enjoy a decent shooting game against Villanova. The 6-foot-2 senior post hit 8-of-12 shots and connected on 4-of-4 free throws.
"We looked inside a lot, which is something we've been trying to focus on all year," Peters said. "It was a little tough, because they were doubling down at first. We got a lot of stuff running the floor and trying to push it a little more, and then looking in, we got a lot of shots off of that. They were looking for me, and I just finished them."
Notre Dame, third in the nation and tied with Connecticut in the Big East in field-goal shooting (.492 percent), hit 50 percent in the first half (15-of-30), but only 6-of-26 in the second half (23 percent).
"We missed some easy shots," McGraw said. "They just rolled off. We were right there for the rebound and they came up with it. We kept our composure. It was good for us. We hadn't really been in a close game in a while, since UConn. It was probably good for us to be on the road and face adversity. I thought we handled it well."
Critical to Notre Dame's success was holding Villanova to only 2-of-26 shooting from 3-point range.
"I was really happy with the 3-point defense," McGraw said. "I thought if we could do a good job on the 3-point line, we could win, despite having an off day offensively. I thought they controlled the tempo in the first eight-and-a-half minutes. We played their pace right where they wanted it, and then we were able to get up and pressure it a little bit. I thought we did a better job of trapping at the end of the first half."
Sweeney was Villanova's only player in double figures, finishing with 14.
"I thought we probably played maybe the best game we played all year," Villanova coach Harry Perretta said. "We're just a very young team and we're trying to find our way. It's difficult. We have very inconsistent spurts on offense.
"Notre Dame is just so skilled offensively," Perretta continued. "If you make a mistake, they just score the ball. It's like we have to do everything perfect, and then make the shot. They don't have to do things as perfect, because their players are a little more experienced and a little more talented. If they get themselves in trouble, they can bail themselves out by making a skill shot."