Notre Dame's Loyd draws tough assignment against Tennessee

South Bend Tribune

For years, college women’s basketball teams tried to make their mark against mighty Tennessee, a program that has eight orange and white national championship banners hanging from the rafters of legendary Thompson-Boling Arena.

On Monday night, the Volunteers will be looking to make their mark against No. 2-ranked Notre Dame.

Suffering through a seven-game stretch in which it’s 4-3 and have dropped from No. 4 in the nation to No. 12 in the Associated Press rankings, Tennessee (14-3) has its sights set on regaining its magic against Notre Dame (16-0) in front of a Big Monday national television audience (ESPN2).

Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. EST. The Volunteers are looking to beat a Top 5 team for the first time since Tennessee knocked off No. 3 Stanford, 82-72, in 2010. Tennessee is 0-8 vs. Top 5 teams since that game.

Notre Dame is ranked No. 1 in the nation in field-goal shooting (51.1), and Tennessee is ranked No. 8 in field-goal defense (33.9 percent). The Volunteers have allowed just four teams to shoot better than 40 percent this season (Stanford, 42.4; LSU, 40.6; Vanderbilt, 49.1; Mississippi State, 40.3), and in those four games, the Vols are 1-3. Tennessee is 13-0 when it holds opponents to less than 40 percent shooting.

“They do a lot of different things defensively,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “They are very good in a man-to-man defense. They’re athletic and they can run the floor. They can score inside. They have size and versatile posts. They’re really talented.

“We’ve got to play the way we’ve been playing. We have to continue to play team basketball and share the ball and try to find our spots to score.”

According to McGraw, the key aspect of the game will be more on defense for the Irish.

Dealing with 5-foot-9 senior point guard Meighan Simmons, who averages 13.3 points a game, will be critical. Simmons just passed former Wawasee High School star Shanna Zolman for 11th on the all-time Tennessee career scoring list, and has 1,713 points.

Irish sophomore Jewell Loyd, a 5-10 sophomore, will draw the defensive assignment on Simmons. Loyd averages 17.3 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, and leads the Irish with 1.6 steals.

Simmons didn’t start for Tennessee in its 67-63 victory against Mississippi State on Thursday. She didn’t start, suffering from stiffness after being in an automobile accident on Jan. 10. Simmons played 16 minutes and scored three points against Mississippi State.

Notre Dame expects Simmons to be at full force on Monday night.

“Meighan Simmons is a great player,” Loyd said. “She is a great shooter and knows how to score. She’s quick. Guarding (former Notre Dame All-American Skylar Diggins) all last year, guarding her this year, I think that’s the best preparation to get ready for a great player like Meighan Simmons. Skylar is among the best guards in the world. I’m ready for the challenge.”

McGraw said that Loyd has the tools to defend Simmons and other players when she has to switch.

“I think Jewell has the size and the speed necessary to guard to guard the Tennessee players,” McGraw said. “At the same time, offensively, she has the size and speed to exploit some mismatches.”

Loyd said that playing defense requires a strong focus and all-out commitment.

“You have to read your scouting reports, listen to your coaches, and watch a lot of film to see what her tendencies are,” Loyd said of studying Simmons. “You have to make sure you’re in the right spot. She’s going to get her shots. She’s going to score. I have to make every shot difficult for her. That’s something that’s really hard to do, but I’m going to try to stay in her face as much as possible.”

Loyd arrived at Notre Dame with a reputation as an outstanding scorer. She’s carving out a legacy as a lock-down defender.

“You have to buy into playing defense,” Loyd said. “That’s the hardest part, definitely coming from high school, where it’s totally different. I want to be a good defender, and I want to be a scorer. I think my defense motivates my offense. If I get it done on defense, your offense is good to go. That’s how you get transition points, and that’s what we’re good at.’’

McGraw said that Loyd set the tone defensively for the Irish in their 109-66 rout of Pittsburgh on Thursday.

“I felt in the Pitt game, Jewell was really on, defensively,” McGraw said. “Her focus was really good. She got out in the passing lanes, got some steals. I love when she rebounds. She’s just does so many things, and I expect her to do them all every game. It’s been fun to watch her development.”

Notre Dame needs a bid defensive effort from guard Jewell Loyd, right, in Monday's game at Tennessee. (AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND)