ESTERO, Fla. — Notre Dame had no answers for South Florida’s Kitija Laksa.
The Irish are playing for a title anyway.
Jackie Young scored 23 points, Arike Ogunbowale added 21, and No. 6 Notre Dame overcame a brilliant performance by Laksa to beat No. 17 South Florida 76-66 on Saturday night in the Gulf Coast Showcase semifinals.
Young and Ogunbowale combined for 18 points in the fourth quarter for the Irish (5-0), who will play No. 3 South Carolina for the tournament title on Sunday night.
“I thought we played a little better,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “Honestly, the first half was about as well as we played all year except for our defense on Laksa. She’s phenomenal.”
Laksa led the way for USF (5-1), scoring 36 points and shooting 9 for 11 from 3-point range. She topped the 30-point mark for the eighth time in her career, and almost single-handedly tried to carry the Bulls back from what was once a 19-point deficit.
“Laksa had a special night,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “But for us to be good, we need to have four guys in double figures, four, five guys. I told them tonight, this is the type of game you’re going to get to the second weekend in March. Hand it to them. They were very, very efficient today and we didn’t disrupt.”
Laksa had eight straight points in the first quarter to stop a 21-9 Notre Dame run that started the game. And in the fourth, when Notre Dame seemed on the cusp of pulling away, Laksa stepped up again with nine points — all on 3-pointers — in a 13-4 USF burst that got the Bulls within 67-58.
But USF would get no closer.
Jessica Shepard scored 15 for Notre Dame, which never trailed and kept a double-digit lead for most of the second half and — much to McGraw’s liking — cut its turnovers from 24 on Friday against East Tennessee State to 12 against the Bulls.
The reward for the Irish is a matchup against the reigning national champions for a tournament title.
“It’s a very good opportunity for us,” Shepard said.
Notre Dame: The Irish beat USF for the 11th time in their 13 meetings, and have won the last eight in the series. … It’s been a winning Thanksgiving weekend so far for Notre Dame starter Marina Mabrey; her high school alma mater in Manasquan, New Jersey, beat rival Wall in football on Thursday, prevailing in that annual game for the first time since 2013.
South Florida: USF fell to a staggering 0-51 against teams ranked No. 10 or better. The highest-ranked AP Top 25 teams the Bulls have beaten remain a pair of then-No. 11s — DePaul in 2005 and Louisville in 2013. All-time, USF is 14-78 against ranked opponents. … USF didn’t go to the bench often; the Bulls’ starters played an average of 38 of the 40 minutes.
Notre Dame and South Carolina have split four previous meetings. The most recent was in the 2015 NCAA semifinals, a thriller that the Irish won 66-65. Current South Carolina star A’ja Wilson scored 20 points as a freshman in that game, but the Irish won behind 22 points from Jewell Loyd. That game was played in Tampa, Florida, about two hours north of Estero. Notre Dame would fall in the title game that year to Connecticut.
This was the first of what will likely be four consecutive games for Notre Dame against ranked teams. The Irish get No. 3 South Carolina on Sunday, visit Michigan — currently No. 25, though probable to stay in the next AP Top 25 after going 2-0 this week — on Wednesday, and then meet No. 1 Connecticut on Dec. 3.
Notre Dame: Faces No. 3 South Carolina in Sunday’s championship game.
South Florida: Faces St. John’s in Sunday’s third-place game.