Notre Dame women's basketball: Irish foe familiar, sort of

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Now that the Notre Dame women’s basketball team finally gets an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent they should know something about, the Irish will be taking on a Pittsburgh team that has a different look this season.

Notre Dame played Pittsburgh in the Big East Conference since the 1995-96 season, and both made the jump to the ACC this season.

“There is a little more familiarity than with the other ACC teams we’ve played so far,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “But they do have a new coach and a new system, so basketball-wise, it’s very different, but at least we do know the players. Last year was a tough game for us. We need to be ready.”

On Thursday night, when No. 2 Notre Dame (15-0 overall, 3-0 ACC) visits the Panthers (9-8, 1-2), Notre Dame will see a Pitt team that has a streamlined look from Panther teams of the past.

Suzie McConnell-Serio moved from Duquesne, where her teams notched 20 victories each of the past five seasons, to take over the Pitt program. McConnell-Serio has streamlined the Pitt attack. Pittsburgh uses four guards, sometimes even five guards.

Pitt has accomplished something under McConnell-Serio this season that the Panthers couldn’t pull off the past two seasons in the Big East — win a conference game. Pittsburgh shocked Virginia at Charlottesville, 79-75. Notre Dame just escaped the Cavaliers in Charlottesville, 79-72, on Sunday.

“Pitt has really made progress,” McGraw said. “They’ve gained confidence. They have a new coach. The last couple of years, they didn’t win any conference games in the Big East. For them to win a game on the road in the ACC, that was a great shot of confidence for them.

“They play a really small lineup. That makes it a little more of a challenge defensively with our posts, to play both posts and have them guard on the perimeter. I’m not sure how we’re going to match up with them.”

Notre Dame and Pittsburgh have played five common opponents. The Irish are 5-0 against those five teams – Michigan, DePaul, Duquesne, Virginia and Clemson – and the Panthers are 2-3.

“I never compare scores, because every team you play is different to match up with,” McGraw said. “Pitt is a very dangerous team. They have very good guards. Their point guard (Brianna Kiesel) is one of the best in the conference and their leading scorer. She does everything for them, so she’s a big key to the game.”

Kiesel, a 5-foot-7 junior, averages 18.1 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. The Panthers do not have a starter taller than 6-foot-.

Notre Dame features Natalie Achonwa, a 6-3 post who scored 26 points and grabbed 16 rebounds on Sunday against Virginia.

“I was just trying to pick up some offensive rebounds,” Achonwa said of her double-double. “That was the biggest thing. When we’re finding our shooters, just to make sure that if they happen to miss once in a while, when they do, that I was there to pick them up. It was all about positioning.”

Achonwa averages 13.4 points and 8.8 rebounds a game. Taya Reimer, a 6-3 freshman post, has been a force off the bench, averaging 9.1 points a game.

Sophomore guard Jewell Loyd averages 17.1 points a game to lead the Irish, and senior guard Kayla McBride averages 16.1 points a game.

Facing a guard-oriented lineup, McGraw said that the Irish will have to defend the perimeter.

“I think we have to be able to guard the 3-point line,” McGraw said. “That’s going to be very important for us, and we have to rebound. We’ve had some trouble with our rotation defensively. We worked on it in practice, and it looked pretty good. That’s something we really have to improve on.

“On offense, we have to execute and score. We’ve had some games where we weren’t able to make shots. We really need to be able to make shots. The bench has got to come in and contribute.”

Last season, Notre Dame and Pitt were tied, 29-29. The Irish then went on a 25-3 run and blasted to a 73-47 victory. Notre Dame held the Panthers to 6-of-26 shooting in the second half.

On Sunday, Notre Dame used an 8-3 end-game run to put away a scrappy Virginia team.

“I think we’re smart,” McGraw said. “At the end of games, we know what we’re supposed to do, and we execute, because we have veterans. That’s been a big key for us. We’re able to execute on offense, and we have players who play well in key situations. When we really need a basket, we know where we can get one. It would be nice to play that way the whole game.”

Notre Dame forward Natalie Achonwa (11) tries to steal the ball from Boston College forward/center Katie Zenevitch (45) resulting in a foul call during the first half of a NCAA women's college basketball game on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (15-0 overall, 3-0 ACC) vs. Pittsburgh (9-8, 1-2)

WHERE: Peterson Events Center (12,508), Pittsburgh

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday

TV: None.

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9, 92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com, ESPN3, watchnd.tv

TICKETS: Available