Notre Dame women's basketball: Irish are welcome guests at ACC’s ‘party’

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Atlantic Coast Conference senior associate commissioner Nora Lynn Finch calls the ACC women’s basketball tournament in Greensboro, “her party.”

Saturday, Finch saw firsthand one of the reasons the ACC may have plenty to celebrate in March.

Finch had a front row seat at the Purcell Pavilion to see No. 4 Notre Dame throttle UCLA, 90-48. The Irish (8-0) are one of two ACC teams in the top five. Duke is ranked No. 2.

Finch, a Hall of Famer named by the Orlando Sentinel as one of the most influential people in women’s athletics in the 20th century, is thrilled about what expansion has brought to the ACC.

“We’re excited to have Notre Dame in the Atlantic Coast Conference,” Finch said. “Notre Dame is a good fit for the Atlantic Coast Conference in every way, and that’s what you want when you adopt. It’s like recruiting. The recruit needs to fit. Hiring staff, the employee needs to fit. It’s a two-way street.

“I think this is as fine a fit as there is. We hold the values dear that Notre Dame holds dear, academically, socially, athletically. We are philosophically aligned and we are competitively aligned.

“The sports where we are really, really good, Notre Dame is really, really good. The Olympic sports here will be really improved. Field hockey, soccer, lacrosse, swimming, everything is going to be better for everybody. We’re both better.”

Finch said that she has known Notre Dame Muffet McGraw since the Irish coach was a player at St. Joseph’s.

“This is like a friend coming to the family,” Finch said of McGraw and the Irish joining the ACC. “Other people look at her as such an exceptional coach, and leader, impactor of the game. She’s my friend, and all of those things, not diminishing all of those things, but especially with those things.”

Life after Skylar

UCLA coach Cori Close said that the returning Irish players have had to take on more responsibilities and step up their games following the graduation of All-American point guard Skylar Diggins.

“There’s a blessing and a curse by having an amazing leader in Skylar Diggins, and this is just an outsider,” Close said. “What do I know? I’m not in their practices every day.

But, Skylar Diggins was incredibly charismatic. When the game was on the line, everybody knew who was going to get the ball. I think, in those pressurized situations, those are really, really powerful things. There’s no arguing what Skylar brought to this program.

“What I saw on film (of this season’s Notre Dame games), was, there’s no deferring to anybody else. There’s no deferring to one person. Now, you don’t have as much ball watching. You’re preparing for that next pass. You’re preparing for that next cut. I just think they’re creating easier shots for themselves this year by the way that they’re ducking in in the post.”

Close said that the Irish aren’t sitting back and waiting for Diggins to make a play.

“There’s no time where they’re looking and saying, ‘OK, what’s Skylar going to do and how do I react to that?’” Close said. “It’s more, ‘What am I going to do?’ and ‘How do I contribute to the next play?’ You put five of those decision-makers in the mix on a consistent basis … I just think you have the potential to grow into a stronger team. That’s what I’ve been impressed with watching them on film and obviously they did that quite well (Saturday).”

Bench power

Notre Dame’s bench nearly outscored UCLA. The Irish piled up a whopping 46-0 advantage in bench points, while the Bruins on scored 48 in their 90-48 loss.

Two of the Irish reserves average in double figures. Taya Reimer averages 11.4 points, and Michaela Mabrey averages 10.0. Madison Cable, who scored a career-high 21 points against UCLA, averages 6.6.

“We have high expectations for them,” McGraw said her reserves. “We really think they can score. When we’re playing them late in the game, it’s like a starter for some teams. We definitely have great depth we’re taking advantage of.”

Week off

Notre Dame has a week between the UCLA game and its trip to Ann Arbor to play against Michigan. The break comes on the heels of a tough stretch in which the Irish played No. 25 DePaul, Duquesne and No. 10 Penn State in nine days.

“We need to rest,” McGraw said. “(Natalie Achonwa’s) knee has been swelling. She’s got some issues with her knee. Ariel (Braker) always has issues with her knees. For us, it’s been a long week, mentally. We need a break, both mentally and physically. We’re going to take a couple of days off and come back Tuesday morning and get ready for Michigan.”

New role

Notre Dame senior guard Kayla McBride scored 12 points, had five rebounds and dished out six assists. But the three turnovers on her stat line is what jumped out at her.

“I thought coach was going to wring my neck,” McBride said. “I was turning the ball over, just stupidly. I was trying to get everybody involved. I knew UCLA was going to be switching a lot. I knew there would be mismatches. I was trying to force things. I was pushing in transition.”

McBride is getting more-and-more minutes at point guard. She takes over the Irish attack when freshman Lindsay Allen heads to the bench to get a break.

“It’s a learning process,” McBride said. “I have my good days and my bad days, but I’m trying to have more good days. I’m just trying to learn. It’s good having Ace, because she knows where everybody is supposed to be. It’s hard.”

Taya Reimer has made an impact off the bench for Notre Dame.