Notre Dame women's basketball: Significant issues surface in win

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- It was a 40-point blowout that nearly went terribly, terribly wrong.

No way an understaffed (only seven available players) 8-6 Clemson team that lost to Oregon State (a team Notre Dame beat by 12) by 33 points a month ago was going to cause problems for the second-ranked team in women’s college basketball.


But the way the Tigers frustrated Notre Dame in the 71-51 Irish victory Sunday will be spread around the Atlantic Coast Conference and included on every team’s scouting report.

Sag on defense. Take away the “back door” baskets. Dare them to shoot. Slow down the offensive pace. Hope for the best.

By halftime, first-year Clemson head coach Audra Smith felt she was onto something. The Tigers trailed just 27-23.

Notre Dame, which came into the game leading the nation in shooting (.514), hit just 8 of 28 shots. Clemson stole the premise of Irish men’s coach Mike Brey’s “burn” offense and ran the clock down on every possession. The Tigers’ sagging man-to-man defense closed the “back door,” which is an Irish trademark. Notre Dame scored just two buckets on those slashing moves.

One of the few times in 13 victories this season, the opponent imposed its will on Notre Dame. For once, the Irish showed they weren’t bullet-proof.

Though she swears she did her best to restrain her true emotions during her nine-minute visit with her players at halftime, Irish coach Muffet McGraw recognized the gravity of the situation.

“Halftime was frustrating,” McGraw said. “We were all frustrated. Everybody missing easy shots they normally make. When you miss a lot of shots, you get a little tense. I was trying not to make it more tense than it was. There were a lot of deep breaths to get to that point.”

The Irish labored through the first half like they were sloshing through six inches of snow every trip down the court. Nothing was smooth. Nothing came easily. Even Jewell Loyd missed an alley-oop layup that she always makes.

After they trudged out to the floor for the second half, seeming no more interested to be there than they were for the first 20 minutes, Natalie Achonwa walked up to Kayla McBride, placed a hand on each shoulder, and shook her.

The wakeup call obviously worked. Notre Dame hit 9 of its first 13 shots of the second half and finally got some traction. Once the Irish built a double-digit lead, it was obvious Clemson came to keep it close and not win. Instead of abandoning the methodical approach and trying to race to get back in the game, the Tigers were content with the pace and the eventual outcome.

Notre Dame has made a living being the dictator. Sunday, the Irish tried to coast, and it nearly bit them in the keister.

The approach was downgraded from aggressive to conservative.

Normally, a sluggish start can be solved by amping up the pressure – especially against a team with a short bench.

Smith said her team was down to seven available players because of injuries and defections. However, McGraw said she was reluctant to dial up some full-court pressure

“Our plan was really a sagging defense,” McGraw said. “(Clemson) didn’t really shoot it very well except (Kelly Gramlich, who led with 13 points). We were going under ball screens; we were sagging off, because they had great quickness on the perimeter. We didn’t want to get beat to the rim.”

Clemson shot 44.9 percent for the game.

“We thought if we (defended) them full-court they would get to the basket faster,” McGraw said.

Make a team with seven players run a track meet up and down the court a few times and the wear and tear will ultimately show.

Of course, that brings about the second concern. McGraw was so upset with her bench players that she stopped substituting. The Irish are built on depth; weapons regularly come off the bench. In this rare instance, Clemson’s bench outscored Notre Dame, 13-4.

“At halftime I pretty much decided I wasn’t going to sub,” McGraw said. “I wasn’t happy with the bench. Our bench has outscored every team we’ve played. They weren’t ready. None of the three of them I put in the game (Taya Reimer, Madison Cable and Michaela Mabrey) were ready.”

Those are some pretty significant issues. Seventeen ACC games are between the Irish and the league tournament. This was just an opportunity for a lesson while still getting a victory.

Can’t say they’ll all be that way.

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa (11) is gaurded by Clemson's Quinyotta Pettaway (12) during their game at the Purcell Pavilion on Sunday. The Irish won the game 71-51.