Notre Dame women on brink of ACC title

South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame stepped onto the Purcell Pavilion court on Jan. 5 as the new kids on the Atlantic Coast Conference block.

On Sunday, they have a chance to walk off the court as the ACC champions.

No. 2 Notre Dame (26-0 overall, 13-0 ACC) takes on No. 7 Duke (24-3, 11-2) at 1 p.m. EST on Sunday (ESPN has the telecast). The Irish own a two-game lead over second-place Duke in the ACC race, and a victory on Sunday would lock up the conference crown for the Irish in their first season in the ACC.

Notre Dame beat Duke, 88-67 Feb. 2 at Duke.

“I see a very intense, focused team,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said of her club. “I saw that at practice. They know this is an important game. I think we’re excited about the position we’re in. We are in control of our destiny. We want to make sure we finish strong.

“I don’t say anything to the players. I don’t have to. They take care of that on their own.”

Notre Dame’s stretch run is challenging – No. 7 Duke, No. 11 North Carolina (Thursday), at No. 14 North Carolina State (on Sunday, March 2).

“This team looks at a stretch like that as fun,” McGraw said. “It’s more fun for them to look at the schedule and say, ‘We have three ranked teams in a row coming up,’ than to see three games that you’re supposed to win.

“Our players embrace these kind of games. They look forward to it. It’s why you play, you want to be in big games with a lot on the line. It’s why you came to Notre Dame, to play in big games.”

In the first game against Duke, the Irish took command early. Kayla McBride finished the game with 23 points and 11 rebounds, and Jewell Loyd scored 17 points.

“I just think we came out ready,” McGraw said. “Kayla hit her first five shots. We were ready, we were focused. We shot the ball well. I thought our defense was pretty good. I was pleased with the interior defense.”

Loyd has been punishing opponents in her last four games, averaging 24.3 points a game to increase her season average to 18.6. She has hit 38-of-59 shots (including 5-of-7 from 3-point range) in her last four games (64 percent).

“Jewell is playing so well,” McGraw said. “She’s having fun. She’s just playing. She’s not overthinking anything. She’s rebounding, she’s scoring, she’s making 3s, she’s getting to the foul line, she’s doing everything well now.”

Loyd has expanded her game lately, scoring more around the basket, including posting up and getting putback hoops on offensive rebounds. She’s also picked up her 3-point shooting.

“Jewell is outstanding at making instinctive cuts, reading the defense, seeing an opportunity and taking advantage,” McGraw said. “She’s feeling the freedom to be able to do that.

“I think she’s playing with a lot of confidence, encouraging her, watching film, to do different things. Make things happen in a different way.”

McGraw said she has been impressed with the way Loyd has progressed this season.

“I think that Loyd has grown tremendously throughout this season and has made a name for herself. Being put on the mid-season Naismith Watch list (for Player of the Year) has given her confidence. Initially, we were shocked that she wasn’t on the list. She’s gone out to prove that she belongs on that list, and it’s been very rewarding for her to see her name on that list.”

Duke brings a formidable attack to Notre Dame. Tricia Liston, a 6-1 senior, averages 18.4 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. Insider players Elizabeth Williams and Haley Peters, who are each 6-foot-3, average 13.9 and 10.7 points respectively. Point guard Alexis Jones averages 13.0 points and 5.3 assists a game.

“Duke is a dangerous team because they can really score,” McGraw said. “They’re good inside and out. Tricia Liston and Haley Peters are playing extremely well. Elizabeth Williams is very, very good on the blocks. Alexis Jones can break down on the dribble and score in a lot of ways. Liston can hurt you on the 3-point line. Richa Jackson can hurt you scoring and rebounding.”

Notre Dame's Taya Reimer (12) and Jewell Loyd (32) react following Loyd's basket against Duke during the Feb. 2 game in North Carolina. Loyd has erupted offensively in the last four games.  (AP file photo/GERRY BROOME)