Notre Dame women's basketball: Braker key vs. MSU

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Ariel Braker hobbled out of the Notre Dame women’s basketball locker room after Saturday’s season-opening blowout of UNC Wilmington, with a clear plastic bag filled with ice taped to each knee.

Stiffly walking over to get hugs from family members was a struggle for the 6-foot-1 senior forward, who had five points, four rebounds and two assists in the 99-50 romp. Braker, who emerged as a breakout player for the Irish last season to earn a starting role, will be counted upon to provide strong minutes on Monday night when Notre Dame hosts a No. 20 Michigan State team looking to open its season with a statement against the No. 6 Irish.

Tip-off at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion is 7 p.m.

Braker, who has had knee surgery each season she’s played at Notre Dame, averaged 5.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in 2012-2013. She blocked 45 shots.

“We’re going to need Ariel to play a little bit more against Michigan State,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw who had Braker in the lineup for only 10 minutes in the opener. “We were trying to ease her in (against UNC Wilmington), but we’re really going to need her defense and rebounding against Michigan State.

“Michigan State is a great team. They are so talented.

This is maybe their best team ever. They have great athletic wings, they’re big. They’re big at every position.

MSU forward Annalise Pickrel is 6-3, and Aerial Powers is a 6-0 guard. Forward Becca Mills stands 6-4.

“Their point guard (Tori Jankoska) is experienced and savvy, and they have a terrific game inside,’’ McGraw said. “They can really guard. That’s something they take a lot of pride in, and they can score, too. They will be a formidable opponent for us.”

Braker has played through pain her entire career.

“I’m doing well,” Braker said. “I’m taking it day-by-day. It’s one of those things. I know it’s always going to hurt, so I’m not going to dwell on it. The coaches and our trainer, Anne Marquez, have been doing a great job of monitoring practice, so they’re not blowing me out. That way, I’m able to come in and play in the games.

“This is a normal thing. You can’t let it affect your play. You can’t feel sorry for yourself.”

Braker knows the Spartans better than anyone on the Irish team. She is a native of Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., and led Grosse Pointe North High School to a Class A state crown in 2008. She has played against several of the Michigan State players in high school or AAU ball.

“This is a really big game for us, and it’s a big game for me, being from Michigan,” Braker said. “Michigan State recruited me. I played against a lot of their players in high school. It’s going to be a battle.

“I enjoy those games, when you play against people you know well. Obviously, I want to win. Everyone understands that this is a big game, not just for me, but for the whole team. Michigan State has a lot of size. It’s going to be a good matchup.”

Braker said the Irish will have to be more productive inside than they were against UNC Wilmington. Notre Dame’s starting posts – Braker and Taya Reimer – combined for 11 points.

“I think we could have done a little better on the inside,” Braker said. “We started making a presence and a force later on. I think if we would have come in the beginning of the game like that, we could have scored over 100. I think we got it together at the end, which is important.

“The inside game will be big against Michigan State. It’s important for us to be able to score inside. They have big posts, and they can shoot the 3s. We’ll have to be able to play defense on the perimeter.”

Michigan State was picked third in the Big Ten pre-season rankings. The Spartans were 25-9 last season. The Spartans romped in two exhibition games, 100-52 against Ferris State, and 91-47 over Grand Valley State. Freshman guard Tori Jankoska averaged 20.0 points in the exhibition games, and another freshman guard, Aerial Powers, averaged 15.0 points a game. Senior forward Annalise Pickrel also averaged 15.0 points a game in the two exhibition matches.

WHO: No. 6 Notre Dame (1-0) vs. No. 20 Michigan State (0-0)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), South Bend.

WHEN: Monday, 7 p.m. EST

TV: WatchND.tv

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com

TICKETS: Available

WORTH NOTING: Notre Dame is 27-5 (.844) vs. ranked opponents the past two seasons, including an 8-1 record at home. … Michigan State leads the series 8-6, including a 4-3 mark on Notre Dame’s court. … Notre Dame is 46-49 (.484) all-time vs. the Big Ten Conference. … The last time the Irish played Michigan State, Ashley Barlow hit a free throw with 10 seconds left to give the visiting Irish a 68-67 victory.

WORTH QUOTING: “The thing about her, she’s so determined. That’s really something you can’t teach. She makes a difference on the floor.” Jewell Loyd on teammate Ariel Braker.