Notre Dame women's basketball: Great start for ND in difficult stretch

South Bend Tribune

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - When the Notre Dame women’s basketball schedule was put together last summer, a critical stretch of five games in 19 days figured to let the Fighting Irish know where they would stand as they prepare for their inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Three games into that stretch, the Irish are standing tall.

Starting on Nov. 26, Notre Dame faced a run of DePaul, Duquesne, Penn State, UCLA and Michigan in less than three weeks. DePaul (No. 25) and Penn State (No. 10) were ranked. Duquesne was a 28-7 team last year that was a power in the Atlantic 10, and was returning four starters. UCLA and Michigan are both athletic, and each has beaten Notre Dame in recent meetings.

Playing at Penn State on Wednesday was clearly Notre Dame’s toughest test. The Nittany Lions are favored to win the Big Ten title. But after the No. 4-ranked Irish held on for a 77-67 victory to improve to 7-0, they have the look of a team with the talent and skill to contend for a fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Natalie Achonwa, who missed the first three games of the season with a knee injury, continues to make rapid improvement. She wounded Penn State inside for 21 points and 10 rebounds.

Achonwa’s biggest contribution may have been defensively. The Irish took seven charges, and Achonwa took three of them.

“They’re a lot bigger and stronger,” Achonwa said of playing defense against Penn State. “A couple of them had really long arms, so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to block them. My biggest thing was trying to get my body in the way and take charges. That’s basically how I play defense. I know a couple of times I got caught behind, when we were trying to front. They were really physical in that aspect. I was just trying to battle.”

Notre Dame’s defensive effort was especially impressive on Maggie Lucas, Penn State’s 5-foot-10 guard who entered the game averaging 22.2 points a game. Lucas, a national Player of the Year candidate, was held to seven points. Lucas’ career low entering the game was six points against Wisconsin on Jan. 2, 2011. Against the Irish, Lucas was 1-of-8. She hit a 3-pointer and was 4-of-4 free-throw shooting. Lucas didn’t score until 5:18 remained in the game.

“That was a key for us,” McGraw said of the Irish defense. “We really wanted to have good help-side defense. We were laying off a couple of players and were really focusing on Lucas and Taylor when they drove it to get in front of them. I thought that was very successful for us.”

Penn State coach Coquese Washington, a former Notre Dame point guard and Irish assistant coach, said that the Irish defense was effective.

“I think they do a good job of making sure they keep the ball in front of you,” Washington said. “They certainly did a good job of keying on Maggie. I thought Maggie got some touches, got some decent looks. We got contributions from other people. I think, for us, the turnovers (22 to Notre Dame’s 15) hurt us more than Maggie Lucas not getting touches.

Tough meeting

McGraw and Washington each fought emotions during the week as the coach and her former player/key assistant were to meet as adversaries.

McGraw is reluctant to schedule former players and assistants, but this game was set up by the ACC and the Big Ten.

“I didn’t like it at all,” McGraw said of coaching against Washington. “It was a hard game in that way. A couple of times, we broke the timeout and just happened to be looking in that direction. That was just a tough game for me. We’ll be talking tomorrow about the game.”

McGraw said that Washington has made her Notre Dame family proud.

“Coquese has done a tremendous job, this year even more so, because of how young they are,” McGraw said. “They have eight new players. She’s done a fantastic job to have them in the top 10 and is doing a great job mixing things up, and they’re running great stuff defensively. They made us work so hard. I’m really impressed with the job she’s done.”

McGraw added that Washington is carving an impressive legacy as a bright young coach.

“She is somebody who everybody wants on the committees in the NCAA,” McGraw said. “They want to hear her voice. She’s so smart. She knows what’s good for the game. She can take her institutional hat off, which a lot of people can’t do, and really think about what’s good for women’s basketball, what do we need, the growth in the game. She’s right on top of it.

“She’s the best young coach in the country right now. When a couple of people retire, she’s going to be the one that everyone looks to.”

McBride’s moment

Wednesday was a homecoming of sorts for Notre Dame’s Kayla McBride, who is from Erie, Pa. McBride ended her high school career helping Villa Maria Academy win a state championship on the Penn State court.

“It was definitely cool,” McBride said of returning to Penn State. “The last time I was here was my senior year of high school. It was a good homecoming for me. I know a lot of people who went to Penn State. It was a great atmosphere.”

Penn State head coach Coquese Washington, center, comforts Dara Taylor (2) after their team's 77-67 loss to Notre Dame on Wednesday night in State College, Pa.  Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, right, and Natalie Achonwa (11) leave the court. Washington formerly played for and was an assistant coach under McGraw.