Notre Dame women finding another gear

South Bend Tribune

During practice last Friday, Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw lined up her team along the baseline at Purcell Pavilion.

It wouldn’t be another round of length-of-the-court sprints.

McGraw didn’t hand out basketballs to the Irish for ball-handling drills.

She handed out a rubber chicken to each player.

The Irish would be engaged in a game of Chicken Toss, a popular activity that usually involves young children during a timeout at Irish women’s games.

“We thought we needed to have a little fun,” McGraw said. “We’re trying to get out of the routine. We also surprised the players with a short, 40-minute practice on Friday. Any little change at this time of the year is good.”

Notre Dame responded by going to Cameron Indoor Stadium and walloping No. 3 Duke, 88-67, on Sunday. It was Duke’s first loss in ACC play on its home court since 2008, a streak of 42 games.

The No. 2 Irish (21-0 overall, 8-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) hope to keep the fun going on Thursday at Florida State (15-6, 3-5). The game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. EST.

Notre Dame will be playing its sixth road game in its past eight contests. The last three road games have been against teams ranked in the Top 15.

When Maryland wiped out a 22-point Irish lead before falling, 87-83, on Monday, Jan. 27, McGraw decided to make sure the players wouldn’t be road weary for Duke.

“It’s funny, we got our second wind at Duke,” McGraw said. “I thought the Maryland game was a ‘hit-the-wall’ game, for some reason. I felt like we were in a tough stretch in January — you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now, we’re into February. We can see March on the horizon. We’ve got Senior Day coming up … it’s the stretch run. I think everybody is finding another gear.”

Florida State will be going big-game hunting against the Irish. The Seminoles were 14-1 and ranked No. 17 going into a game on Jan. 12 against North Carolina. The only loss at the time was an overtime setback to No. 4 Louisville.

Since then, the Seminoles have lost five of their last six games, and an upset of the Irish would stop the tailspin in dramatic fashion.

In its last game, Florida State was whacked by Wake Forest, 78-54. The Seminoles were 1-of-16 shooting from 3-point range in that game. In the five losses in ACC play, the Seminoles are shooting 127-of-335 (.379 percent), and averaging 18.8 turnovers (compared to 12.4 assists).

Florida State will build its attack against the Irish around 6-foot-3 center Natasha Howard, who averages 18.2 points and 9.0 rebounds. She is fifth all-time on the Florida State career scoring list with 1,518 points.

Notre Dame’s bench will be critical in keeping a fresh defender on Howard. Against Duke, the Irish reserves not only gave the Irish starters key breaks, but outscored the Blue Devils’ bench 18-3. The Irish reserves are outscoring opponents 27.8 to 15.9.

“It’s the time of year where you need to be able to give your starters a few minutes of rest in each half,” McGraw said. “The bench is just critical for that.

“Michaela Mabrey is a big-game player for us. She loves those situations. She’s so competitive. She thrives in big games. Madison Cable didn’t play that much in the Duke game, but she’s somebody that I think is going to play a big role in the Florida State game. I’m really pleased that Markisha Wright has come off the bench and given us good minutes. She energized us. That’s what we need.”

McGraw sees overall improvement by the defense.

“I think we’re becoming more aware of where the best player is, where the shooter is in the zone,’’ she said. “I think we still need a little more work in the zone.”

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw describes sophomore guard Michaela Mabrey as a "big-time" player. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (21-0, 8-0 ACC) vs. Florida State (15-6, 3-5)

WHERE: Tucker Center (12,100), Tallahassee, Fla.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday

TV: None locally.

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9, 92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com

TICKETS: Available