Notre Dame women take aim at record

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw brought her team out to practice on the Purcell Pavilion court on Friday, and there was a pause.

“The players were like ... ‘I remember this court,’” McGraw said with a laugh.

No. 2-ranked Notre Dame, which has played six of its last eight games on the road, returns to Purcell Pavilion on Sunday to play against Syracuse, and the Irish have a chance to make it a game to remember.

Notre Dame (22-0, 9-0 ACC), can tie the national championship team of 2000-2001 for the best start in program history (23-0).

“We’re really happy to be playing at home,” McGraw said. “We shoot better. We feel more comfortable with our fans.

“It’s been such a long stretch. I feel like we haven’t been home in so long. Then we turn around and go right back on the road Thursday. It’s been a grind.”

Sunday’s event is the Pink Zone game to raise funds for education, screenings, research and support in the fight against breast cancer.

“My Mom is a breast cancer survivor, so this cause is definitely close to my heart,” McGraw said. “Markisha Wright’s Mom is a breast cancer survivor. Everybody knows someone who has been touched by cancer. Everybody knows someone who this game means a little more for. It’s great to have the chance to create awareness and raise some money to help research.

“We have such great fans. Our community really gets behind these events. It’s so gratifying to see how many people come out and support this cause.”

Sunday’s game features a Syracuse team that has won six of its last eight games. The two losses by the Orange were both to No. 10 Maryland, 89-64 and 77-62. Syracuse was impressive in winning at No. 11 North Carolina, 78-73, and beat Texas, Memphis and Texas A&M to win the Paradise Jam in November.

Brittney Sykes, a 5-foot-9 guard leads Syracuse, averaging 18.3 points, and Brianna Butler, a 5-foot-11 guard, averages 15.4. Both are sophomores.

“They really are playing well,” McGraw said. “Brittany Sykes is coming off a huge game (31 points in a 73-48 win over Virginia Tech). She’s a phenomenal athlete. She’s really a challenge to guard. She played well against us last year. Butler is a great 3-point shooter. She’s taken almost as many 3s as our whole team has.”

Syracuse boasts an athletic team. The Orange have a reputation for pushing the ball, and they like to press start to fin-ish.

Notre Dame can expect to see Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone. It’s a zone that is slightly modified from the men’s 2-3 Jim Boeheim zone. Against any zone, hitting perimeter shots is critical.

“We want to try and stretch their zone with our 3-point shooters,” McGraw said. “We’ve seen a lot of zone this year, and we’ve played pretty well against the zone. It’s a great chance for Madison Cable and Michaela Mabrey to really con-tribute.”

Notre Dame leads the nation in 3-point shooting.

Defensively, McGraw said the Irish will have to rely on their half-court defense, since Syracuse is too athletic and too quick to press.

“I think we’re getting there with our zone,” McGraw said. “I thought it was good in the Florida State game. I thought it gave us good minutes. It’s given us good minutes throughout the year. I think we can get better. I’d like to play it for longer stretches. We need to have it ready for the ACC Tournament.”

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw huddles with her team during Thursday's game at Florida State. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (22-0, 9-0 ACC) vs. Syracuse (17-6, 6-4)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149)

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

TV: None locally

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9, 92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com

TICKETS: Available

WORTH NOTING: Notre Dame leads the all-time series against former Big East rival and current ACC foe Syracuse, 26-2. ... The Irish have won 13 consecutive games against the Orange. ... Last season, Notre Dame beat Syracuse 79-68. ... Notre Dame has won 45 consecutive regular-season games and 22 straight home games. ... Notre Dame leads the nation in field-goal shooting (.519) and 3-point shooting (.441). ... Brianna Butler of Syracuse is 72-of-203 (36 percent) from 3-point range. ... Notre Dame is 116-of-263.

WORTH QUOTING: "I don't want us to just be a team that tries to outscore people.” — Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw