Heels offer Irish women another chance to grow
Moving on from the previous play, or the previous game, is critical in the grueling marathon that is the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s basketball season.
Thursday night, the ability of Notre Dame to move on from an emotional victory, and the ability of North Carolina to move on from a tough loss, will be measured.
No. 2-ranked Notre Dame (27-0 overall, 14-0 ACC) is coming off of Sunday’s 81-70 victory against No. 7 Duke that clinched the ACC crown in its first season in the league.
No. 14 North Carolina (21-7, 9-5) is hoping that it avoids a hangover from Sunday’s 50-47 upset loss to Virginia Tech.
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion.
“We won’t have a letdown,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “Our players realize that there’s still too much at stake for us. They’re extremely competitive. They want to keep getting better every game.”
North Carolina fell to a Virginia Tech team that is 3-11 in league play and is 13th in the 15-team ACC standings. In Sunday’s upset, the Tar Heels were only 15-of-56 shooting for 26.8 percent, and were 1-of-18 from 3-point range. North Carolina’s top two scorers, Allisha Gray and Diamond DeShields, were a combined 4-of-26.
“I have no doubt that North Carolina will be determined to come out and prove they are much better than that game,” McGraw said. “They have a lot at stake too, as far as trying to improve their seeding for the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament.”
After Thursday’s game the Irish close the regular season at No. 13 North Carolina State on Sunday.
Then, the Irish travel to Greensboro, N.C., for the ACC women’s basketball tournament, which for the Irish starts on Friday, March 7, as the No. 1 seed.
After that, it’s the NCAA Tournament.
“The great thing about the ACC, there are so many ranked teams, there are so many Top 10 teams, that every night you’re great preparation for the NCAA Tournament,” McGraw said. “We looked at this finish all year long, and got to thinking, it’s not going to get any easier as we finish the season. To have a team like North Carolina come in, a team that’s playing great basketball despite their recent loss, is a great challenge. They are a really talented and young team.”
Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd, a 5-10 sophomore guard, enters the game as the reigning national and ACC player of the week. Loyd averaged 25.7 points and 7.7 rebounds in three games last week. She hit 51 percent of her shots.
“She has been so efficient offensively, playing great defense, rebounding … just doing everything, assists, steals,’’ McGraw said. “She’s playing a complete game every night out. Her effort is always tremendous. She works so hard every possession. She’s doing everything she can to help us win.
“I marvel that she always has a bounce in her step the day after a game. Everybody is a little tired, but she still has that bounce in her step. Even on a day off, she’ll be in the gym shooting. She has such a love of the game, and you can see the passion for it. It’s fun to watch.”
North Carolina boasts the nation’s top freshmen class, featuring 6-3 forward Stephanie Mavunga, 6-1 guard DeShields, and 6-0 forward Gray.
Mavunga averages 11.2 points and 8.7 rebounds, DeShields 18.1 points and 5.3 rebounds, and Gray 15.1 points and 5.6 rebounds.
“They are, individually, really, really good players,” McGraw said of the Tar Heels’ freshmen. “They don’t have a weak spot. It’s a great challenge for us, because their athletic abilities creates tough matchups for us. The freshmen are maturing. They’re playing really well together.
Thursday’s game will feature the top two women’s recruits from Indiana last season in Notre Dame’s Taya Reimer and Mavunga. They played each other in high school frequently, when Reimer was at Hamilton Southeastern and Mavunga at Brownsburg. Interestingly, Reimer was the national player of the year last season, but Mavunga was Miss Basketball.
WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (27-0, 14-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 14 North Carolina (21-7, 9-5)
WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), South Bend.
WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m. EST
TV: None locally
RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1)