SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said the biggest surprise about No. 2 Notre Dame this season is that the team is better without Skylar Diggins.
Hillsman said coaches around the country expected a bit of a drop off for the Fighting Irish after Diggins graduated after leading the Irish to three straight Final Fours, including two title games.
"I guess that theory is out the window," he said. "No drop off."
After seeing Jewell Loyd score 23 points, Kayla McBride add 18 and the second-ranked Irish open a 33-point halftime lead Sunday in a 101-64 victory, the eighth-year Syracuse coach said he believes it's the best Notre Dame team he has seen.
"I thought last year with Skylar, some of the players would let her do her thing and kind of step to the side and let her shine. And she did, nothing against her. She really dominated the game," he said. "I think now with Skylar being gone they're so balanced. It's so hard to prepare for a team that has that kind of balance and can score from all sports on the floor."
The Orange (17-7, 6-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) clearly weren't prepared. Notre Dame took control from the start, beating the Syracuse zone inside and outside, jumping to a 14-2 lead, extending it to 29-10 midway through the first half and 61-28 at halftime, their most points in the first half this season. The Irish shot 61 percent in the first half, holding the Orange to 31 percent shooting, and outscoring Syracuse 20-8 inside.
"I thought it was one of the best halves we've had, and we've had some good ones," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "We shot the ball well, we handled the press well, I was most pleased defensively."
Notre Dame also matched its season-high with 10 3-pointers, hitting seven of its first nine, while holding the Orange to five, two below their average. The Irish also forced 24 turnovers.
Loyd was 9-of-11 shooting, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range, and the only thing that could slow her was sitting on the bench for nearly half the first half after picking up her second foul. McBride was 7-of-12 shooting as the Irish improved to 23-0, matching the best start in school history. The other time the Irish (10-0 ACC) started 23-0 was in 2000-01 en route to the national championship.
While Hillsman was ready to make comparisons with past Irish teams, McGraw was not. Asked whether she thinks the Irish might be better without Diggins, she said "that remains to be seen."
"But I do think this team is very different in a good way. I think everybody has stepped up and done more," McGraw said.
She said McBride and Loyd are key reasons the Irish are playing so well.
"Because they're hard to guard," she said.
McBride believes the Irish have a deeper bench, with the Irish reserves outscoring Syracuse's 43-27.
"They bring instant offense when they come in," she said.
Michaela Mabrey added 18 points for the Irish, including hitting three straight 3-pointers in the first half, and Natalie Achonwa had 14. Brittney Sykes led the Orange with 14 points and Rachel Coffey had 12.
Asked where he thinks the Irish might be vulnerable, Hillsman said he has no answer.
"I don't know if they are vulnerable. They're very balanced," he said.
McGraw (737-258) tied the late North Carolina State coach Kay Yow for 11th place in career wins. Yow died in 2009 after a long battle with breast cancer. The Irish and Orange wore pink as part of the Play4Kay game raising awareness of cancer research.
McGraw said tying Yow's victory total was special.
"She was an incredible woman, did so many great things for the game. A great ambassador," she said. "She just left a mark for all of us to try to follow. She did everything with such grace and dignity."