Notre Dame women are on a different plane

COMMENTARY

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Here’s a novel idea: Bag the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and have Notre Dame and Connecticut play best-of-five for the title.

Why not? The gap between the nation’s top two and everyone else is that wide.

Notre Dame’s 101-64 shelling of Syracuse on Sunday was just another piece of evidence supporting that revolutionary proposal.

Just for good measure, consider No. 3 Stanford losing to unranked Washington by five Sunday. Then there’s No. 1 UConn’s 17-point win over No. 4 Louisville. Add to that the 21-point Irish win over then-No. 3 Duke a week ago and there’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt that there’s the elite — and there’s everybody else.

With every passing victory in this season that could test the historical limits, the same question is resurrected: Is this the best Notre Dame team coach Muffet McGraw has had?

Hard to bring the 2001 national championship squad into the equation because it was a different era and a different collection of talent. Post Ruth Riley was special, no doubt about it. Niele Ivey was a great leader at point guard. The core of that team only reached one Final Four — and won it. This group is going for its fourth straight, but looking for its first crown.

Staying power counts for a lot.

The common refrain among opposing coaches is that Notre Dame’s depth makes it special. Last year, Skylar Diggins was the show, and everyone else had a role. This year, everyone has a hand in the success.

Sunday, it was Jewell Loyd hitting 9 of 11 shots and scoring 23 points. Michaela Mabrey, who wasn’t even an afterthought last year, hit 6 of 14 3-pointers for 18 points.

The problem is figuring out which Irish player to guard. They go eight deep and all eight can score when necessary.

“We all expected a drop-off when Skylar left,” said Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman. “Throw that theory out the window.

“I don’t know if they are vulnerable. If you sag off of them (on defense), they make 10 3s (the Irish were 10-of-26 Sunday). They don’t miss shots. When you leave them open, they make shots.”

Syracuse’s miserable attempt at a zone defense tried to snuff out the points in the paint (Notre Dame still scored 38) and left the perimeter open just about the entire game.

The Irish rewarded their sellout crowd with Big Macs — the McDonald’s promotion that kicks in when Notre Dame scores 88 points — with 8:58 still left in the game. Heck, scoring 101 against an ACC foe ranked No. 27 in the country should warrant a cherry pie, too, shouldn’t it?

Is this sort of dominance good for women’s basketball? McGraw has her program on the uptick and the good just keep getting better. Remember, Tennessee had its time in the spotlight before coming back to earth. And UConn has maintained its hold over the rest of the country for a while.

“You look at the difference between No. 2 in the country and No. 27 — it’s a big gap,” said Hillsman, in his ninth year at the Orange helm. “Two or three years ago, we were struggling. I’m a very impatient coach. I was wondering why I hadn’t won a national championship yet.

“You look at the teams that are successful. You look at the teams in the top five. They have coaches who have 20-some-odd years of experience as head coaches. They’ve got it figured out. Whether it’s style of play; whether it’s recruiting; whether it’s marketing. They’ve got it figured out.”

Soooooo... what does McGraw, in her 27th year, know now that she might not have known, say, 15 years ago?

“I know that it’s really important to recruit good players,” McGraw said, downplaying her impact in what now is a 23-0 season. “Our success is completely based on our players.”

Of course, there’s a taskmaster in stilettos who was still complaining with a 61-28 lead late in the first half. Her intensity has a way of rubbing off onto the style of play.

So, are these Irish the best she’s had?

Doesn’t matter.

They just have to be the best Thursday night at Boston College. Then next Monday at home against Georgia Tech. And .... Well, you get the picture.

Leave the history assessment to the columnists.

But that best-of-five with Geno would go a long way toward providing the answer.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6318

Notre Dame's Kayla McBride navigates through the Syracuse defense during their game Sunday at Purcell Pavilion. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)