Notre Dame women’s basketball: Irish just beginning to develop edgy attitude

Al Lesar

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Getting over being nice doesn’t happen overnight.

It’s a process.

Notre Dame’s women’s basketball players, dainty ladies who wouldn’t be caught dead without their white gloves at tea, took a few steps toward the dark side Monday night in their 81-62 win over Michigan State.

It’s not like the Irish have a spit-and-vinegar mentality that Skylar Diggins brought for the last four years. Slowly but surely the chip is starting to form on their shoulders.

“I don’t think we’re quite where we want to be yet,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “(Senior Natalie Achonwa) and I are doing the injecting. I’m working on (sophomore guard) Jewell (Loyd). That’s a challenge for me.

“(Loyd and freshman post Taya Reimer) are very nice. I thought they played today a little differently; a little meaner. Not quite all the way there yet.”

Little things, quite unremarkable to the casual fan, displayed the roots of the attitude adjustment progress — or lack thereof.

Midway through the first half, Michigan State’s Tori Jankoska took a spill in the lane. Nice girls, even on the other team, would have helped her up. Not only did no one from Notre Dame offer a hand, one Irish player couldn’t resist taking a step where she happened to be lying.

OK, notch one snarl for the good girls in the white uniforms.

Early in the second half, little Spartan guard Kiana Johnson — listed at 5-foot-7, but actually closer to 5-5 — breezed through the lane untouched and canned an uncontested layup.

Sorry, smiley face for the Irish.

WWSD: What Would Skylar Do? At that point, the soon-to-be Ring of Honor member would have nonchalantly leveled Johnson, challenging her to shoot two free throws.

It happened again a little later in the second half. Klarissa Bell found her way to the basket via the Notre Dame defense without being disturbed.

Another smiley face. Something’s gotta change.

By halftime, Notre Dame - — the entire team — had committed just two fouls.

Nope, smiley face. Remember, that’s a bad thing.

“It’s the physical part,” McGraw said of the area of concern. “We want to take more charges and block more shots on defense. Offensively, just being strong with the ball; getting the ‘and-one’ (basket and a free throw after a foul). That’s what we’re talking a lot about on offense — taking the contact and scoring.”

“I know I definitely am too nice,” said the 6-3 Reimer, who gave insight into what could be an amazing career with 19 points and 13 rebounds. “I’m trying to work on it. Hopefully, I can get to that meanness level (McGraw) wants me to be at.”

This Notre Dame team is really pretty good right now. Its No. 6 ranking in the country might even be a bit conservative. Add Achonwa to the mix — McGraw said she expects her to be back in the lineup from knee surgery by the start of December — and the Irish could be special.

Besides her presence inside and leadership on the floor, McGraw will finally have an active player that shares her demeanor.

Heck, after the game, Achonwa was shooting buckets with a couple junior high-age youngsters. A big elbow knocked one to the floor.

Now that’s nasty.

Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant, who has been around the game for a while, knows how hard it is to get the attitude just right.

“I’ve been a head coach for 19 seasons now,” said Merchant. “Your best teams are when they police themselves. When that comes internally from the players, then you have something really special. (It’s special) when it’s your hardest working kid, and your best player has that mentality and that will to win, and that kind of mentality that gets everyone else to jump into the fray with them.

“That’s what we talk about: ‘Let your play say so much; speak so much in volume that everyone else wants to live up to your standard.’ When it’s manufactured from the head coach, or the coach has to bring more of that, it makes it more difficult. Can it be done? For sure. Your season can go up and down in those situations.

“If you’re talking about Notre Dame, I read some things that Muffet said they have to be a little bit meaner. They were pretty mean on the boards tonight (the Irish had a 52-29 advantage). I should tell her not to be so hard on (her players). They looked pretty good.”

Good, but not great. WWSD?

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6318

Notre Dame's Taya Reimer, left, goes after a loose ball next to Michigan State's Annalise Pickrel during Monday's women's basketball game against Michigan State at Purcell Pavilion.