Role players help turn the tide for Notre Dame women

Commentary

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Shots kept falling. That incessant (but, after a while, kinda catchy) “Rocky Top” kept blaring. And the geriatric orangebloods, more than 13,000 strong, kept whooping it up.

Didn’t look good for Notre Dame for a while Monday night.

At one point, late in the first half, Tennessee’s women’s basketball team had hit 68 percent of its shots and led by double digits. If the Vols weren’t draining a 3-pointer, they were finding one of their bigs free down low.

When was Notre Dame going to decide to play defense? The law of averages (Tennessee has shot 46 percent for the season) had to catch up with the Vols. Right?

The Irish had every reason to panic. But, for some reason, they didn’t.

Notre Dame’s 86-70 victory over the Vols was a testament to poise and composure. It’s not like the Irish had ever been in this situation before — lost and confused on defense; stagnant on offense.

Muffet McGraw shrugs it off as an experienced team responding to a challenge. Sorry Coach, that’s too simple. Her current team may have its share of notches in its belt — 17, to be exact — but this collection of players had never seen anything like this before.

•Hostile environment, at least until the Vols faded and bedtime rolled around. Might have taken two glasses of warm milk and a Tums to settle the geezers’ stomachs after that collapse.

•An athletic team that knows its way around a lead.

•A significant deficit, when nothing seemed to be going right.

Still, the Irish persevered.

The big three — Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd and Natalie Achonwa — have traveled this path before. However, with the game on the line, Loyd was hardly a factor because of foul trouble, and Achonwa didn’t distinguish herself until the lead had already happened.

Credit this win to new players in new roles.

Michaela Mabrey, who doesn’t appear to have the athleticism of her teammates, hit a stretch in which she couldn’t miss from the perimeter. Mabrey’s 15 points were of the quality, game-in-the-balance variety.

Then, there’s Madison Cable: 3-of-4 from 3-point range; a steal and a layup that bailed out Achonwa after she missed the front end of a 1-and-1; 12 points, three assists, three steals.

Cable and Mabrey were afterthoughts, at best, this time last year. All of a sudden, they’re clutch performers in some very difficult situations.

“We never have to be nervous,” McBride said. “We’re not relying so much (this season, compared to last year) on (someone like Skylar Diggins). We relied on her to do everything.

“(This year), everyone knows their role. They have to play it. If they don’t play it, we’re not going to win games. People are taking more pride in their role on this team.”

As for Mabrey, she has one role — and has done it pretty well lately.

“I’m a shooter; that’s my job,” Mabrey said. “No matter what, I’m going to keep shooting. (McBride) really helps me. I’ll miss my first few, she tells me, ‘Keep shooting.’ That builds my confidence up.”

“(Cable) and (Mabrey) are two of the best bench players in the country,” McBride said. “They can shoot, they can rebound, they can defend. They can do everything. They’ve grown up a lot.”

Besides forging the mettle of the Irish, with some tough tests — such as Duke, Maryland and North Carolina, to name a few — still ahead, Monday’s triumph was a seeding win, in the world of women’s college basketball.

With four losses already this season, Tennessee’s reputation may be overshadowing its performance right now. The athletes are in place, though something is missing. But beating the Vols by 16 on their home floor — orange checkerboard end zone and all — will go a long way toward enhancing Notre Dame’s credibility come tournament time.

If the Irish find themselves teetering in the eye of the selection committee, a win like this could weight a decision in Notre Dame’s favor.

Benefits will be reaped in March.

But the trip home Monday night had to be a lot of fun.

They earned it.

Notre Dame guard Michaela Mabrey (23) shoots a three during a women's NCAA college basketball game on Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)