Notre Dame women's basketball: Irish No. 1 at crashing boards

Curt Rallo
South Bend Tribune

When Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw met with the media in October, she stated that she might have one of her best rebounding teams.What McGraw has now is the nation’s best rebounding team.Notre Dame will put that rebounding effort into play on Saturday, when the No. 4-ranked Irish (7-0) host UCLA (3-4). Tip-off is set for noon. Notre Dame’s plus 20.6 rebounding margin over opponents ranks No. 1 in the NCAA Division I statistics. Alabama State is second at 17.3, followed by Oklahoma State (16.7), Baylor (16.5) and Marquette (15.7). Last season, the Irish finished fifth in the nation in rebounding margin (10.9). Liberty was ranked No. 1 (16.9). Although the Irish have been outrebounding opponents by staggering numbers, the highest ranked Irish individual is freshman Taya Reimer, who is 211th in the nation in rebound. For the Irish, rebounding is strength in numbers. Reimer averages 8.0 rebounds a game. Natalie Achonwa averages 7.8, followed by Jewell Loyd (7.1), Kayla McBride (6.8) and Ariel Braker (5.9). The Irish average 49 rebounds a game. “We’re rebounding in a lot of different ways,” McGraw said. “Jewell is just so athletic. Ariel has a phenomenal sense of where the ball is going to go. Ace (Achonwa) and Taya, and K-Mac (McBride) are strong. They can battle among some big, physical kids and come up with the ball.”Notre Dame’s rebounding prowess has led to an average of 17.7 second-chance points, compared to 7.0 second-chance points for opponents. UCLA is at a minus 1.6 rebounding margin, which has the Bruins ranked 203rd in the nation in that category. But McGraw can see beyond the numbers. McGraw remembers when another UCLA team arrived in South Bend an underdog, and left with an 86-83 double-overtime victory on Nov. 17, 2010. The Irish were outrebounded by three (46-43), and were outscored by three in second-chance points (12-9). UCLA leads the series, 9-5, but the Irish have won three of the last four meetings, including 76-64 last season at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. “They upset Oklahoma,” McGraw said of this season’s Bruins. “They’re very athletic. They’re young. They are very dangerous.” In UCLA’s 82-76 upset of then No. 10 Oklahoma, the Bruins dominated the Sooners on the boards, 51-29. UCLA’s 5-foot-11 forward Atonye Nyingifa scored 28 points, and 5-9 guard Nirra Fields scored 27, in the victory against Oklahoma. “They were on fire against Oklahoma,” McGraw said. “Every team has a game like that. Everybody is clicking at the same time. Oklahoma was on the road, and UCLA just put it all together. When they got the lead, they’re young, they gained a lot of confidence.” Notre Dame has made big strides defensively and took seven charges against Penn State earlier this week. “We reward the players for taking charges,” McGraw said. “They make the highlight film. They always want to see themselves in the highlight film, falling down and taking charges. They know how important it is. It’s the consummate team act, to give up your body for your teammates.’’Nyingifa and Fields will be the focus of the Irish defense. “I think this team takes a lot of pride in defense,” McGraw said.. “It’s a challenge to have a good player come in and try to shut her down, to try and limit her to her season low. ... We can get better. Our zone needs work, our press needs work, but we are definitely making strides.” Notre Dame’s bench has also been a difference-maker for the Irish. Against Penn State, the Irish bench outscored Penn State 21-9. Reimer is averaging 12.1 points a game, and Michaela Mabrey is averaging 10.3 off the bench. “Depth is critical in the NCAA Tournament, especially the way the refs have been instructed to call the games,’’ McGraw said. “They’re calling games a little tighter, so you need to have people who are ready to come in.”

Notre Dame's Taya Reimer, left, goes after a loose ball next to Michigan State's Annalise Pickrel during the women's basketball game against Michigan State on Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN