Knowing their roles keeps Irish rolling

BOB WIENEKE
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- At the beginning of every season, Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw asks her players to form a circle on the Purcell Pavilion floor. McGraw then goes around the circle and tells each player what her expectations are that season.

For instance, McGraw might tell a certain player that she wants her to lead the team in rebounding. She might tell a backcourt player that she needs to lead the guards in rebounding. One year, McGraw told three different defenders that she wanted them to lead the team in steals, only to have another chime in that she too wanted to top the Irish in that category.

"So everybody knows. Everybody has a pretty good idea whether their job is going to come more at practice or more in the game. Whether they're in the game, are they going to be a scorer or are they going to be in there for defense and rebounding," McGraw said.

"What is their role?"

That approach, one that manages expectations and provides clarity before the whistle is blown to start the first practice, seems to be working just fine with the 34-0 Irish, who face Oklahoma State on Saturday at home in the NCAA Tournament.

Yes, the big three scoring combo of Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd and Natalie Achonwa garners loads of headlines, deservedly so. But it's been everyone else -- the role players -- who have been key in helping the Irish to that umblemished record.

Need scoring? How about Michaela Mabrey, who has played in every game this season, all but one of them coming off the bench. She's ND's fourth-leading scorer and is especially lethal from beyond the arc, where's she's hit 70 of the 162 3-point attempts she has hoisted.

"I think she's the best sixth man in the country," McGraw gushed. "She has dagger 3s. She kind of demoralizes the defense because her range is so great. She stretches the zone. I think people are leery of playing a zone when she's in the game. She's had a phenomenal year."

Need rebounding? Well, there's Ariel Braker, who had no problem not being counted on to score because she arrived at Notre Dame devoid of the reputation of a big scorer.

"It wasn't hard at all, especially for me. I wasn't a big scorer in high school as it is," said Braker, a regular in the starting lineup. "I was mostly defense, so, when I came here, they wanted me to do defense and rebounding, which is what I did in high school, so it worked out well for me."

Braker, though, isn't the only post player McGraw can turn to when it comes to sound interior play.

"Taya Reimer is somebody that you have to be really concerned with," McGraw said. "You worry about Natalie Achonwa, and then in comes Taya Reimer, a McDonald's All-American who can do so many things for us at both ends of the floor."

Playmaking? Freshman guard Lindsay Allen sits second on the team in assists, only two behind McBride.

Allen and Braker round out the starting lineup beyond the big three, but it's the players McGraw is able to summon from the bench who make things particularly difficult on outmanned opponents.

Braker was asked just how strong ND's depth is. Her description of the team's practices provided a perfect illustration.

"I will definitely just say that practices are harder sometimes than games in some cases," Braker said. "I think, obviously, we do a really good job of preparing each other, so I think it helps."

And that in turn has fed the winning that has yet to stop this season.

"I think everyone knows what we need to do to win, and obviously everyone is really unselfish and wants to win," Braker said, "and so everyone molding into their role just worked out perfectly."

BWieneke@SBTinfo.com | 574-235-6428 | Twitter: @BobWienekeNDI

Notre Dame's Michaela Mabrey (23) puts pressure on Arizona State's Arnecia Hawkins, left, during the second round NCAA women's basketball tournament game on Monday, March 24, 2014, inside Savage Arena at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Ariel Braker, right, competes for the ball with Duke's Oderah Chidom during the championship game of the ACC women's basketball tournament on Sunday, March 9, 2014, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Taya Reimer, right, moves by Arizona State's Kelsey Moos during the second round NCAA women's basketball tournament game on Monday, March 24, 2014, inside Savage Arena at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen grabs a loose ball during the second round NCAA women's basketball tournament game on Monday, March 24, 2014, inside Savage Arena at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

COACH: Muffet McGraw

TOURNAMENT RECORD: 43-19 (21 years)

SCORING MARGIN: +26.1

SCORING: (86.7) Jewell Loyd 18.4; Kayla McBride 17.4; Natalie Achonwa 14.5

REBOUNDS: (42.2) Natalie Achonwa 7.5; Jewell Loyd 6.3

REBOUNDING MARGIN: +9.6

ASSISTS/TURNOVERS: (20.7/14.7) Lindsay Allen 3.8/1.9; Kayla McBride 3.9/2.0

FIELD-GOAL PERCENTAGE: (.513) Natalie Achonwa .602; Ariel Braker .529

FREE THROW PERCENTAGE: (.753) Kayla McBride .880; Jewell Loyd .823

3-POINTERS: (.414) Michaela Mabrey 70; Kayla McBride 36

LAST 10: 10-0

THE SKINNY: Advanced to past three Final Fours, including championship games in 2011 and 2012, and has significantly raised scoring, field goal (.511), three-point and assist percentages even after graduation of All-America point guard Skylar Diggins. First ACC team to go undefeated in conference and tournament play (combined 19-0 record) since 2002-03 (Duke), winning ACC Tournament with 69-53 victory over Duke. On a school-record 34-game winning streak.

NO. 5 OKLAHOMA STATE (25-8)

COACH: Jim Littell

TOURNAMENT RECORD: 10-11 (12 years)

SCORING MARGIN: +10.7

SCORING: (70.7) Tiffany Bias, 13.8, Brittney Martin, 12.0, Liz Donohoe, 11.2

REBOUNDS: (42.2) Brittney Martin, 8.8, Liz Donohoe, 6.1

REBOUNDING MARGIN: +5.4

ASSISTS/TURNOVERS: (14.0/14.1) Tiffany Bias, 6.1/3.3, Brittney Martin, 2.1/1.8

FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE: (.423) LaShawn Jones .549

FREE THROW PERCENTAGE: (.680) Brittany Atkins .741

3-POINTERS: (.315) Liz Donohoe, 57, Tiffany Bias 31, Brittany Atkins 22

LAST 10: 6-4

THE SKINNY: The Cowgirls are making their first back-to-back NCAA appearances since 2007-08 and their eighth consecutive postseason appearance overall. The Cowgirls are led by unanimous All-Big 12 pick Tiffany Bias, who also appeared on watch lists for the Wade and Naismith trophies and is a finalist for the Lieberman Award. A member of the league's all-defensive team, Bias was joined on the conference honor roll by Brittney Martin and Liz Donohoe, honorable mention all-league selections, and all-freshman team pick Roshunda Johnson.

COMMON OPPONENTS

NOTRE DAME (2-0)

Michigan State, W, 81-62

Georgia Tech, W, 87-72

OKLAHOMA STATE (2-0)

Michigan State, W, 63-57

Georgia Tech, W, 68-60