Huge road test awaits No. 2-ranked Notre Dame women

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Adversity?

It’s seemingly a part of Notre Dame’s uniform.

On Sunday, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team will put on its road blues, and once again stare down adversity.

And, once again, the Irish expect adversity to blink first.

No. 2 Notre Dame (20-0 overall, 7-0 ACC) travels to No. 3 Duke (21-1, 8-0) in a showdown for the ACC’s top spot. Sunday’s tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m. EST, and ESPN has the telecast.

Notre Dame will be playing its third consecutive road game at an Associated Press Top 15 team.

The Irish rallied from a 12-point deficit to win at No. 12 Tennessee (86-70), on Monday, Jan. 20, and delivered some big baskets down the stretch to hold off No. 8 Maryland (87-83), last Monday.

Now, the Irish clash with Duke and Notre Dame has waged two classic battles against the Blue Devils the past two seasons.

In 2011-2012, Notre Dame played Duke for the Junkanoo Jam championship. Notre Dame rallied from an 18-point deficit for a 56-54 win on a buzzer-beater by Natalie Novosel.

Last season, in the Norfolk (Va.) Regional championship game, Notre Dame rallied from nine points down in the second half for an 87-76 win to advance to the Final Four.

“This is going to be yet another big road game for us in a string of many,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “The league is just so difficult, and coming into February, and looking at playing Duke twice, North Carolina — we still have so many big games ahead of us. It’s a tough time of the year. We’re in a grind. We have to be focused mentally and be ready, because it’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a war. We beat Duke last year to go to the Final Four, and I’m sure they have revenge on their minds.

“There’s a lot on the line. It’s so important for the conference race. It’s two Top 5 teams going at it.’’

Sunday’s winner will get the early inside track on the ACC regular-season race, and a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But Sunday’s game will far from settle anything. Notre Dame and Duke will meet in South Bend on Feb. 23, and the two may meet in the ACC Tournament in March.

Duke, whose only loss was an 83-61 setback to No. 1 Connecticut, suffered an early blow when point guard Chelsea Gray (10.8 points, 7.2 assists a game) was lost for the season with a knee injury.

Since then, 6-foot-1 senior guard Tricia Liston has stepped up.

In the five games since Gray’s injury, Liston has averaged 24.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists. During that stretch, Liston is hitting 66.7 percent of her field-goal attempts, and 60.9 percent of her 3-point shots. Overall, she is averaging 18.4 points a game.

“Tricia Liston is playing so well right now,” McGraw said. “She is the leading 3-point shooter in the country (.504). She scored quite a bit on us last year (19 points).

“Elizabeth Williams is one of the best centers in the country, and their point guard, Alexis Jones, is another year older. They have a lot of weapons. Their starters are all high school All-Americans. Their senior class was ranked No. 1 in the country. They’re on a mission.”

Liston will get a lot of attention.

“I think a lot of different people will guard Tricia Liston,” McGraw said. “Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd, Lindsay Allen, Madison Cable — I think there will be a lot of people we put on her. But Duke is a team that can score a lot of points. You can’t key on one person, because everybody on the court can score.”

Williams, a 6-foot-3 junior post averages 14.2 points and 7.1 rebounds a game.

Duke, like Notre Dame, has been pushed. The Blue Devils won by one point at Miami, 76-75, and beat ACC winless Virginia Tech by four points, 74-70, also on the road.

“Like us, teams come in and give you their best shot,” McGraw said of Duke’s close calls. “If you’re not ready, anybody in the league can give you a game, especially on their court. I don’t think there’s a weakness in the Duke team, it’s just that the other teams have come out and played well.”

McGraw said the Irish are hoping to get its perimeter players good looks.

“Duke plays a match-up zone,” McGraw said. “Last year, when we played them in the regional, we shot the ball pretty well. We found some openings in the zone. For us, we have to be sharp. We can’t turn the ball over. We have to be attacking on offense. We like playing against a zone, especially (Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable). We’ve been able to move the ball well.”

CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Notre Dame guard Kayla McBride (21) loses the handle on the ball in front of Duke guard/forward Haley Peters (33) and guard Alexis Jones (2) during last year's NCAA tournament tussle on April 2, 2013, in Norfolk, Va. (SBT photo/JAMES BROSHER)