Mental toughness may be Notre Dame's best asset

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND-There has been flash plenty of times on the court for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team this season.

Alley-oops delivered by Jewell Loyd, diving steals from Markisha Wright, rainbow 3s by Kayla McBride, Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable, spin moves to the hoop by Natalie Achonwa and Taya Reimer, blocks by Ariel Braker, phenomenal passing by Lindsay Allen.

But what Irish coach Muffet McGraw thinks has her team standing 20-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country isn’t individual brilliance, but team toughness.

“I think this is one of the toughest teams in the country, mentally,” McGraw said. “This is a group that just goes out and gets it done every day. They have a business-like approach. They don’t get too high after the wins, or too low after a bad day. Adversity strikes, I don’t think anybody puts their head down. They expect to win. They play with confidence. It’s a really fun team to coach.”

Notre Dame’s toughness has surfaced in numerous games, where gutty plays maybe didn’t produce style points, as much as winning points. Notre Dame lost a 22-point lead on Monday at No. 8 Maryland, fought back to hold on for an 87-83 victory. The Irish trailed by 12 points late in the first half at Tennessee on Jan. 20, but dominated the second half for an 86-70 victory.

On Sunday, the Irish (20-0, 7-0) face their fourth road game at a Top 15 team, when they take on No. 3 Duke (21-1, 8-0) in a battle of ACC unbeatens at 2 p.m. EST on ESPN.

When Virginia Tech closed to within four points on Thursday, 22-18, the Irish hit the Hokies with a 15-1 punch to close out the first half. Notre Dame went on to a 74-48 victory. Irish senior leader McBride said that more than anything, it was toughness that sparked the Irish surge.

“Mental toughness is something we expect of each other,” McBride said. “We know there are going to be days where it doesn’t go our way, but it’s what comes next. What can we do next? What can we do better? We don’t want to settle. We know that we have a target on our back.

“I think we’re a really tough team. We have a lot of different weapons. We have a lot of different players who can do so many different things. We’re really hard to attack, I think. We have this mentality of, we know what our goals are, and we’re not ready to settle for anything less than that.”

Lockdown defense

McGraw wasn’t pleased with Notre Dame’s defense in the 87-83 victory over Maryland. The Irish were outscored in the paint, 50-34, and Terrapins’ All-American Alyssa Thomas overpowered the Irish for 29 points and 12 rebounds. McGraw later questioned the Irish effort.

Against Virginia Tech, the Irish showed up. Notre Dame held the Hokies’ Uju Ugoka, a 6-1 senior forward, to 10 points and seven rebounds. She entered the game ranked second in the ACC in both scoring (20.2) and rebounding 10.3.

“Defensively, I thought we did a nice job on Ugoka,” McGraw said. “I was really happy with that coming off of the not-so-good defensive effort against Maryland. Overall, I think we can take some good things from that.

“I thought (the win against Virginia Tech) was a night we followed the game plan (defensively) a lot better than we have recently, because we were trying to double-team (Ugoka) when she got the ball. We were ready for her on the drive. I thought we did a good job of that.’’

Reimer’s progress

Reimer, a 6-foot-3 freshman post, scored 15 points against Virginia Tech. She hit 5 of 7 shots and 5 of 5 free throws. The Indianapolis product averages 8.3 points and 5.4 rebounds.

“Taya was a lot more aggressive offensively,” McGraw said. “I think she’s really turned the corner. I think she wasn’t pleased with her game up to this point. She’s got a lot of work to do, but I think (Natalie Achonwa) is helping her a lot. I think the team is helping her and trying to pull her through this time, because we need her.”

Reimer said her goal is to be an impact player off of the bench.

“I just try to go in and play as hard as I can and do anything I can on the court for this team,” Reimer said. “I like that role. I like coming off the bench and giving them energy and doing whatever I can to help us win.”

CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd (32) grabs the ball in front of Virginia Tech's Samantha Hill during Thursday's game inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)