Wolfpack the final obstacle for Notre Dame women

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Hospitality has turned into hostility for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.

Welcomed into the ACC with open arms and flattering words, the Irish wrap up their inaugural regular season in the league facing a buzzsaw finish.

Notre Dame’s final three opponents are No. 7 Duke, No. 14 North Carolina and No. 13 North Carolina State. No other team in the nation faces the daunting task of playing three Top 15 teams to finish the regular season.

After dispatching the Blue Devils (81-70) and Tar Heels (100-75), the Irish hope to put the finishing touches on a perfect regular season on Sunday at North Carolina State (24-5, 11-4). Action is scheduled to start at 2:30 p.m. in Raleigh.

Notre Dame (28-0, 15-0) has already clinched the ACC regular-season crown and the No. 1 seed in the league tournament.

“I’m just so pleased that we haven’t had a letdown,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “We clinched the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament, and you couldn’t have told that by the way we came out against North Carolina. We went in with the same focus that we have for every game. We weren’t taking anything for granted. We were committed to the game plan.”

It’s Notre Dame’s third consecutive league title after winning the past two Big East crowns.

“I’m just so pleased with where we are and how far we’ve come,” McGraw said. “We’ve gotten a lot better over the course of the year. If you look back to the beginning of the season, I don’t think we even thought far enough ahead to think about the possibility of being undefeated. It never crossed our minds. We’ve just been pretty quietly putting together some really good games to be at the point we’re at right now. It’s just such a great accomplishment for this team.”

North Carolina State was picked to finish 10th in the league. But under the direction of first-year coach Wes Moore, it is tied with Maryland for third.

“They’re having a sensational season,” McGraw said. “The coach has done a phenomenal job. ... They’ve bought into his philosophy, and they’re doing a fantastic job.”

Built around the posts, the Wolfpack have an attack that averages 77.1 points, compared to Notre Dame’s 87.6.

Markeisha Gatling, a 6-foot-5 center, averages 17.4 points. Kody Burke, a 6-2 forward, averages 15.1.

“They have tremendous posts, maybe the best in the conference,” McGraw said. “Gatling is on all of the national award watch lists. She’s one of the best in the conference, just because of her ability to pin and steal and work on the block. Most posts will come from way in the back to do a lot of things, she is so deadly around the basket. She’s complemented with Burke, who can shoot 3s, and yet can also go inside. They have a really great inside duo.

“This team is a little different than most in the way they use their posts. (Duke’s) Elizabeth Williams is somebody we really had to think about double-teaming and using some different defenses. N.C. State, Gatling is really stronger around the basket than we’ve seen this year. This will be a new test for us.”

McGraw said that Ariel Braker, a 6-3 senior post, will be counted upon to help deliver strong interior defense.

“I thought Ariel had a great game against North Carolina,” McGraw said. “She was up in the press and made it difficult for Carolina to get a quick inbounds pass. She’s been so important to us. She’s played through injury and pain in her knees. She’s usually in a boot when she’s not practicing. It’s miraculous that she can give us as many good minutes as she does.

“We’re hoping that we can create some turnovers before Gatling gets set in the post. Overall, it’s really going to be up to our posts to play some one-on-one defense in the blocks, and Ariel is one of those people we’re relying on.”

McGraw said that she hopes to see continued development in the bench as the Irish get their final tune-up before tournament time.

“Madison (Cable) had a really great effort against North Carolina,” McGraw said. “She took the 3. She was aggressive offensively. I was really happy with her.

“We really need our bench in the tournament. We’re looking at the possibility of playing three games in three days, so the bench is going to be a critical factor. I think we have nine people that we’re confident can come in and help us. I think that’s more than just about every team in the league. Depth is so important. If somebody commits a couple of fouls, if you want to rest somebody, it’s good to have that confidence in the bench.”

Curt Rallo: CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Twitter: rallo_NDInsider

Notre Dame's Ariel Braker, center, will be counted upon to provide the Irish with strong defense down low against North Carolina State. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (28-0, 15-0 ACC) vs. No. 13 North Carolina State (24-5, 11-4)

WHERE: Reynolds Coliseum (8,560), Raleigh, N.C.

WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Sunday

TV: None locally

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9, 92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com

TICKETS: Available

WORTH NOTING: Game time for the Irish vs. Wolfpack was pushed back from the original 2 p.m. start to allow ESPNU to have “look-ins” on the game. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series, 1-0, beating the Wolfpack, 64-53, in the 1996 preseason WNIT consolation final in Ruston, La. … Notre Dame has won a program-record 51 straight regular-season games and 34 consecutive regular-season road games. … The Irish have won 35 straight conference games, which includes Big East competition. … Notre Dame senior Kayla McBride is averaging 21.0 points versus Top 25 teams this season, including 28.5 in her last two such games. … Taya Reimer is the fourth freshman in program history to reach the 40-block mark. … Irish point guard Lindsay Allen has committed two or fewer turnovers in 19 games this season. … Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd has four double-doubles, including in each of her last two games (vs. No. 7 Duke and No. 14 North Carolina).