Notre Dame women's basketball: Irish have prepped for ACC moment

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw heard the news that Notre Dame would be joining the Atlantic Coast Conference starting this season last March in Hartford, Conn., as the Irish were on the eve of upsetting mighty Connecticut for Notre Dame’s first Big East Tournament championship.

White ACC logos emblazoned on the blue Irish free-throw lanes were painted on the Purcell Pavilion court this summer, and the names of ACC teams replaced the Big East school names around the arena.

Finally, after nearly two years of whispers, formal announcements and orchestrated hype, the Irish will step onto the court for an ACC game.

No. 2 Notre Dame (12-0) opens its ACC era on Sunday against Clemson (8-6) on the Purcell Pavilion court. Tip-off is set for 2 p.m. EST.

It will be the fourth inaugural conference game for the Irish women’s program, who opened play in the North Star in 1984, in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference/Horizon League in 1989, and the Big East in 1995.

“We’ve been checking scores all year and trying to see ACC teams when we can when we’re doing some scouting,” McGraw said of anticipation building up for the move to a new conference. “It’s exciting. It’s a new league and a new start.”

Irish senior Kayla McBride said the players are excited to finally get going in the ACC.

“We’re definitely excited to be in the ACC and see what it’s all about,” McBride said. “There’s been so much hype surrounding us joining the conference. We’re excited for the opportunities to create new rivalries and see new places.”

In order to prepare for a new conference, McGraw structured a non-conference schedule designed to get used to playing first-time opponents.

“Really, it’s almost like an NCAA Tournament, where you’re playing somebody for the first time, and that was why we played a lot of first-time opponents in our non-conference schedule, so the players didn’t have that familiarity, and they had to get used to studying extra to learn different styles of different teams,” McGraw said.

“There’s a lot more preparation involved with the switch to a new league. We really don’t know a lot about the teams in the ACC. Clemson played Oregon State, so at least we can see a team we’re a little familiar with. It’s nice that we have our ACC opener at home, so we don’t have to worry about the crowd and the environment.”

McGraw said the players have had to do a lot of extra work to familiarize themselves with ACC teams.

“We’ve put in a lot of extra hours,” McGraw said. “The players are watching a lot of games where you haven’t seen either team before. It’s been hard for the players. They’ve been trying to figure out the philosophy of the different coaches, what do they really like to do, who are the really good players?”

Ariel Braker, a senior post, said the Irish will benefit from playing new opponents.

“It’s going to be tough, playing new opponent after new opponent, but it will be good for us,” Braker said. “We’ll have to change and we’ll see things that we’re not expecting, but that will really help us if we want to make a good run in the tournament. You see a lot of different styles, and you have to learn new teams in the tournament.”

An ideal situation for McGraw and the Irish would be to send the league a message.

“I think it’s important for us to come out immediately and set a tone,” McGraw said. “That is something we will address with the team.”

According to McBride, the Irish are ready for the ACC. Notre Dame has played ACC powers the past two seasons in the Elite Eight. Notre Dame beat Maryland, 80-49, to advance to the 2012 Final Four, and beat Duke, 87-76, to advance to the 2013 Final Four.

“We know the ACC is going to be different, especially with the speed of the conference, but I think our non-conference schedule really prepared us well,” McBride said. “Plus, we played in the best conference in the country last season in the Big East. That will transfer over. We’ve been working hard in practice, and coach McGraw has been upping the intensity, especially on defense.”

Notre Dame’s Ariel Braker (44) works against South Dakota State in last Thursday’s game.

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. Clemson (8-6)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), South Bend

WHEN: Sunday, 2 p.m. EST

TV: None

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com, WatchND.tv

TICKETS: Available

WORTH NOTING: This is the first meeting between the Fighting Irish and the Tigers. … The teams have one common opponent so far this season. Notre Dame won at Oregon State, 70-58, while Clemson lost to Oregon State, 74-41, in Las Vegas. … Clemson finished its pre-ACC schedule with its first winning mark since the 2009-2010 season. … Clemson’s Kelly Gramlich set a school record with eight 3-pointers against South Carolina State earlier this season. … Clemson head coach Audra Smith and Dawn Staley, the head coach at rival South Carolina, were teammates on three Final Four teams at Virginia. … Notre Dame is 43-2 with Ariel Braker in the starting lineup. … Jewell Loyd has scored double figures in 18 consecutive games for the Irish. … Notre Dame’s Madison Cable leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in 3-point shooting percentage (13-of-23, .565). … Notre Dame has won 35 consecutive regular-season games and 18 consecutive home games.

WORTH QUOTING: “Clemson is really athletic. Their kind of athleticism is always scary.”

-Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw