Notre Dame doesn’t get surprised very often, and it showed why.
The Irish treated Mercer no differently than any other opponent and came out showing what the No. 3 team in the nation looks like in rolling past Mercer 128-42 on Friday night at the University Center.
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw had little to complain about.
“I thought we played extremely well,” she said. “We played with a lot of intensity at both ends of the floor and really, really executed.”
Never miss a local story.
The game was something of a homecoming for Notre Dame senior Fraderica Miller, a Marist graduate who got the first start of her career with dozens of friends and family on hand.
Her teammates made sure the trip to her home state was sweet, surrendering an early bucket to Mercer and then scoring the next 17 points as the Bears turned it over eight straight times under the Irish’s pressure and traps.
“I put in 30 names for tickets (Thursday) night,” said Miller, who found out about her first start at Friday’s shootaround. “I don’t know how many people are out there, though.
“Any time I can play in front of my friends and family, I’m going to have fun. Starting on this team is definitely a privilege.”
She finished with a game-high 11 rebounds, part of Notre Dame’s 47-18 advantage on the boards.
Briana Williams topped Mercer with 10 points before fouling out with 7:13 left in the game.
Markisha Wright, who averages 14.7 minutes and 4.8 points per game, led the Irish with 24 points in 20 minutes. Skylar Diggins, surrounded afterward for nearly 20 minutes for autographs and pictures, added 21 points in 16 minutes on 8-for-8 shooting. Five other Irish were in double figures.
The Irish fouled out four Bears: Williams, Ry’van Buchanan, Shari Smith and Jasmine Blakemore. They set school marks going 43-of-52 from the line.
“That’s just a reality check, to toughen us up,” Buchanan said. “In order to be champions, you have to play champions. We have to learn from each lesson, even though it was an embarrassment. We’ve got to keep our heads high.”
The Irish shot 70.2 percent from the floor, tying a school record, including 80 percent in the first half. Mercer’s 28 turnovers were one above the average of Notre Dame’s opponents.
“I don’t really look at people by their names; it’s just how they play,” Buchanan said. “I think that the mentality of some of our teammates is, ‘Oh, we’re playing the No. 3 team, so we should just lay down.’ That’s not how I think.”
Not much of what happened was unexpected, except perhaps Notre Dame’s energy level being so high against an undermanned opponent.
Mercer’s moral victory came in passing the point total of Notre Dame’s last opponent by halftime. The Irish thumped Longwood 92-26 on Wednesday. Only five Notre Dame opponents have scored 50 or more points this season.
The Irish set program records for, among other things, points in a half, points in a game and largest margin of victory.
“They’re not huge; they’re not overly ‘wow’ athletic, but they play so hard,” Mercer head coach Susie Gardner said. “All the time, every possession. They know the game.”
Mercer was slow to react to the pressure and help out, hurting itself at time with some lazy passing and pass-catching. The Bears had trouble early on just getting the past halfcourt, going nearly four minutes between their first and second shots.
“Our guards were nervous,” Buchanan said. “Some people played due to injury, so it was a big eye-opener to them.”
Notre Dame scored 55 points off of Mercer turnovers overall.
Notre Dame was up 45-8 at the 7:51 media timeout of the first half when it called off the press. By then, the Irish had made 14 of their 19 shots to 3-of-15 for the Bears.
Notre Dame’s 72-30 halftime lead was one short of the school mark for halftime margin, set earlier this year in a 99-34 win over Indiana State.
“I thought the first half, minus the score, we did keep fighting,” Gardner said. “We did hit some shots. We had some players show that they could and would continue to compete.”