Big games bring out best in Notre Dame's McBride

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Maybe Skylar Diggins knows what she’s tweeting about when it comes to the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.

Midway through the first half of Sunday’s 81-70 win over Duke, Diggins, while sitting courtside, fired off a message to her 400,000 or so tweeps.

“Kmac (Kayla McBride) might get 30 today … best player in the country. Maybe I’m bias, but whatevs!”

Diggins did underestimate McBride a bit. Instead of 30, the 5-foot-11 Irish scored 31, and had seven rebounds, four assists and four steals to go along with it.

But … best player in the country? Hmmm, that’s a pretty big step to take.

“I agree,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, seconding Diggins’ motion. “She’s certainly the best player in the (Atlantic Coast Conference). (Maryland’s) Alyssa Thomas is an excellent player too, but when a team wins the league (title) and has the best player, you’ve gotta see that.

“I would pick her No. 1 in the WNBA draft if I were coaching.”

Big games bring out the best in McBride – one of the criteria for the nation’s best. In four games against top competition – Tennessee, Maryland and Duke (twice) – McBride is averaging 24 points (seven above her season average), eight rebounds (2.5 above) and five assists (one above).

“She leads the team in assists (104),” said McGraw. “That’s pretty amazing. To be able to score like she can and be such a great passer. Her assist-to-turnover ratio (104-59) is really good.”

Call it versatility. Call it a quiet unique talent. Whatevs, as Diggins would tweet. McBride has the ability to play anywhere on the floor. In basketball vernacular, that’s 1 (point guard), 2 (shooting guard), 3 (small forward), 4 (power forward) or 5 (center). At one time or another, she played them all Sunday.

“She’s so incredibly coachable,” said McGraw.

Can’t coach instincts. Early in the first half, while Duke was in the midst of its nightmarish 16 turnovers in 20 minutes, McBride made a play that can’t be taught.

The Irish defense had Duke forward Haley Peters hemmed in along the baseline in front of the Notre Dame bench. McBride shuffled over and gave a spirited look to the tactic that caused Peters to panic. Her response to the pressure was to try to slam the ball off McBride, let it go out of bounds and live to fight another day. Instead, at just the right instance, McBride had the wherewithal to sidestep the throw by Peters. The ball went out of bounds. Irish possession.

“We had a trap in the corner,” McBride explained. “It was actually what I was supposed to do and I did it. I just kinda moved out of the way.”

A nonchalant shrug of the shoulders doesn’t do justice to a heady basketball play.

Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie was certainly impressed. McBride torched the Blue Devils for 23 points the first time around, so they knew what to expect. She owned the elbow; that smooth 15-foot jumper from either side of the free throw line. McBride had a knack for finding the blank spot in the Duke defense.

“Twenty-one played super, super basketball,” said McCallie, referring to McBride. “She played better than the last time we played them. Her game rose without question.

“She’s got such a quick release in the high-post area (the elbow). She’s a pretty smart player. She found some holes.”

McBride may be better, but … Is she the best?

McCallie stopped and thought for a moment.

“McBride (a brief hesitation to think) … Top four, or better,” McCallie said. “I think she’s one of the best players in the country, by far. I think she’s been overshadowed. She’s somebody who is very, very tough. She might be the best in her position anyway.”

Of course, Skylar’s endorsement has gotta count for something, right?

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

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Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw talks to Kayla McBride during a Duke foul shot. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)
Notre Dame's Kayla McBride fires up a three-pointer during the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA women's basketball game on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014,inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN