Notre Dame women's basketball: ND no passing fancy

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Task One for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team during practice is a passing drill.

Passing ahead for lay-ups; passing ahead to spot-up shooters. There is no defense. Turnovers are not allowed. A turnover means the drill starts over.

That attention to precision and perfection has helped Notre Dame rise to the No. 2 ranking in the nation and stand No. 1 in the nation in assists per game (23.1). Those lofty rankings will be tested by a scrappy South Dakota State team that already has one Top 10 victim this season — Penn State — a team that the Jackrabbits stunned 83-79.

Tip-off for the battle between No. 2 Notre Dame (11-0) and South Dakota State (9-6) is set for 7 p.m. at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion. The game is a final tune-up for the Irish before they open their inaugural Atlantic Coast Conference on Sunday at home against Clemson.

“They shot the ball really well against Penn State,” McGraw said of the Jackrabbits. “They were up 20 at halftime. They’re a good 3-point shooting team. They have really balanced scoring. They’re not as big in the post as some of the teams that we’ve played, but they are a very good perimeter team.”

Notre Dame is coming off of a tough 70-58 victory at Oregon State.

“We had trouble containing the ball and we just couldn’t make shots,” McGraw said. “We missed a lot of lay-ups. We missed free throws. We missed open shots that we normally make. We shoot the ball pretty well, as a rule (51.2 percent, which leads the nation). That was a game where we didn’t shoot it as well (29-of-70 for 41 percent). We had to rely on our defense.”

Notre Dame faced its largest deficit of the season against Oregon State, down 33-25 with 55 seconds left in the first half.

McGraw hopes that Notre Dame’s passing will get the Irish offense back on track on the eve of the ACC sched-ule.

“I think the assist-to-turnover ratio is the most important stat,” McGraw said. “That’s the first stat I look at when I start studying the opponent. You learn a lot about a team when you see how they pass.”

Notre Dame is No. 4 in the nation in assist-to-turnover at 1.51, while South Dakota State is No. 239 at .70.

“There is an art to passing,” McGraw said. “There’s a touch to the ball. There’s a certain trajectory you need. Some you need a softness with a bounce pass. Some passes have to be crisp. There are all kinds of passes. A lot of the drills we do work on passing with pressure. We work on that quite a bit.

“Some players come here as really good passers. (Michaela Mabrey) is a really good passer. (Lindsay Allen) happens to be a really good passer. The other guys work really hard at it. Our posts are good passers. We try to re-cruit posts who are good passers. It’s so critical in our offense.”

Notre Dame senior guard Kayla McBride said that the Irish work hard at honing their passing.

“I think good passing comes with team chemistry,” McBride said. “The more solidified the team chemistry is, the better passing you’re going to have. If I know what Jewell wants, that in a transition she wants a lob, that (Michaela Mabrey) is going to spot up from the 3-point line, that (Madison Cable) is going to spot up from the 3-point line, that (Natalie Achonwa) is going to run down the middle, (Ariel Braker) is going to run down the middle, (Lindsay Al-len) is going to push it up. She’s going to look to attack.

“You have to learn who you’re playing with. We’ve done a really good job of learning about each other. That comes from scrimmaging, which we do a lot of, and it comes from practice, too.”

McGraw said that all of Notre Dame’s players come in as prolific scorers, but that they have a willingness to share the ball.

“Being unselfish is somebody who can make the pass that leads to the assist on the next pass,” McGraw said. “That’s something that takes real unselfishness, because you don’t get any credit for that. In transition, throwing that pass ahead, so now the person who gets it is going to get the assist.

“The willingness to do that is really the key to our team making good passes. The quickest way to get the ball up the floor is passing it. I love when we get the rebound, take a couple of dribbles, and throw it ahead.”

Notre Dame’s passing statistics are impressive considering that the Irish graduated a consensus All-American point guard in Skylar Diggins.

“Passing is a point of emphasis for coach,” McBride said. “Good passing is something she instills in us. She talks about sharing the ball, making the extra pass, getting it to the post.

“She talks about not just getting a good shot, but making the extra pass to get a better shot. It’s something we fo-cus on. If you look at our Princeton offense, there are so many cuts and screens and so many options, and we have so many weapons on the court, we’re trying to find the best option and best weapon with our passing.”

“Everybody knew they had to come in this season and do their part passing the ball for us to be successful. You can’t rely on one person to do the passing. And you have to learn to pass well. Coach does not like turnovers. She really doesn’t like turnovers. She likes perfection. We take a lot of pride in our passing.”

Notre Dame guard Kayla McBride, left, heads downcourt against Oregon State guard Sydney Wiese during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Corvallis, Ore., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. AP Photo/RON RYAN