Notre Dame women's basketball: Big chasm between top four and rest of country

Commentary

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Jet lag took awhile to kick in.

UCLA's six minutes of energy were followed by 34 minutes of women's basketball reality — a very harsh reality.

Those women from the West Coast were gassed as the opening emotion in Notre Dame's 90-48 landslide Saturday melted into a puddle of frustration.

Consider the Bruins' body clocks were all out of whack, thanks to a 9 a.m. (Pacific time) tip.

Talk about wake-up calls. UCLA coach Cori Close probably would have been happy to roll over, go back to bed and chalk that nightmare up to a bad travel day.

Two airline mechanical problems didn't help the logistics of UCLA's venture east. The Bruins didn't get situated and into a practice at Notre Dame until around 9 p.m. (EST) Friday. Fifteen hours later, they were facing the No. 4 team in the country.

No big deal, right?

Though hampered by injuries to three key players this season, the Bruins' 3-5 record isn't without quality victories. UCLA knocked off No. 10 Oklahoma, 82-76, just a couple weeks ago.

That's only six places in the national poll. It gave the 8-0 Irish a reason to take notice.

But after Saturday's shelling, it's obvious the chasm between No. 4 and No. 10 in the poll might as well be from sea to shining sea on the women's college basketball globe.

The Bruins were competitive for six minutes. A 3-pointer by Jewell Loyd, and layups by Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa turned an 8-6 UCLA lead into another Irish rout.

"As I scouted this game, I thought there were very few things you could ... You try to find things you could cheat off of," said Close. "Maybe you could really push them out of their comfort zone here.

"We told (our players) we didn't really want (the Irish to throw) penetrating passes or for them to get around their shoulders and get a full head of steam toward the goal. You commit to that. In the first half, 26 of their points were in the paint.

"When you commit to that, (Madison) Cable goes off from the 3-point line (5-of-6, 21 points).

"The difference between 4 and 10, is that, still in our game, unfortunately, a lot of (teams ranked) 10- through 15-level teams, you still have some weaknesses you can cheat off of; maybe take away that strength of the other team.

"Whereas, when you're talking 1 through 4, you better be solid as a rock because there's no cheating on them. You can't cheat on anybody or junk it up. I thought about going 'triangle-and-two' (defense on Notre Dame), but who did you want to make shoot the ball?

"There's a problem with that. That's the biggest difference in our game. As we grow our game from a grass roots effort, hopefully in a few years you'll see 10 to 15 not a big difference; then 15 to 20. We have to be committed to that as a whole group to move our game forward."

As it stands, though Irish coach Muffet McGraw would consider the mere thought blasphemy, the Irish have a very limited schedule ahead of them. Every time they walk into a gym, the target's squarely on their back.

So what? Penn State, ranked No. 10 at the time, took its best shot — at home — earlier in the week, and was a double-digit loser. A visit to Tennessee (Jan. 20), a home-and-home with Duke (Feb. 2 and 23), and the annual showdown with Connecticut (oops, sorry; scratch that; just wrote that out of habit; c'mon Geno, we shouldn't have to wait 'til the Final Four for that one), will add some spice to the Notre Dame schedule.

Stay healthy and play up to potential and the Irish should be primed for another long tournament run. Should be a cakewalk in the first two rounds, probably at Purdue. The regional will be at home. Notre Dame's tournament run could realistically be a three-game event — the championship of the regional and then the Final Four.

Until then, McGraw will continue to fret over perceived shortcomings in 42-point victories while fans and media marvel at how this team seems to be bullet-proof, when it comes to letdowns and cold streaks.

That gap between 1-through-4 and everybody else is that way for a reason.

Talent is only part of it.

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa (11), right, gets a rebound while guarded by UCLA's Thea Lemberger (1) and Rhema Gardner (20) during a recent game at Purcell Pavilion.