Business as usual just fine for Notre Dame women


South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Four minutes of inspiration followed by 36 head-scratchers might be a cause for concern.

Dig a 14-0 hole against Notre Dame? Happy trails, Cowgirls.

Muffet McGraw certainly won’t celebrate Saturday’s 89-72 NCAA tournament win over Oklahoma State. It’s not in the Irish women’s basketball coach’s DNA.

Take the effort at face value. Credit the early bump to an adrenaline-injecting full house, then scrutinize the rest of the game to see what could be different Monday night against Baylor.

It’s nowhere near time to panic. Too many positive signs against a pretty good bunch of Cowgirls. But, like they have all season, the Irish don’t play against individual opponents. When a team reaches the rare air that Notre Dame breathes, it plays against perfection.

The alleys along the road to Nashville are littered with teams that settled for good enough.

The most important step the Irish took was their improvement from Monday’s tussle in Toledo. Beating Arizona State by 17 wasn’t nearly as impressive as beating Oklahoma State by 17.

This one flowed. Notre Dame’s game was smooth. Heck, if this would have been the regular season, McDonald’s would have been out about 9,000 Big Macs.

“(Monday) was a little, the thought of, ‘We’ve gotta get back home,’” said McGraw. “We even came out a little tight. We lost our rhythm in some substitutions. Today, we had the right people on the floor at the beginning of the game. The comfort level at the beginning of the game was big.”

Don’t minimize what it means to have the target on the back. Notre Dame is the hunted. That’s the price of success. Four consecutive Elite Eight appearances come with built-in pressure.

Oklahoma State’s ability to score 34 points in the paint will be a stat the Irish hear about in Sunday’s film session. It’s not like it came from a bevy of offensive rebounds (the Irish won in that category, 15-13). The Cowgirls were allowed way too many lay-ups.

“When you see openings and gaps, you need to attack,” said Oklahoma State guard Tiffany Bias. “When you attack, you can get your teammates open.

“(Notre Dame) was really playing hard on the wings. They’re a good defensive team. When you see those openings and gaps, you need to take it.”

Granted, even the Irish defense can’t stop everything. Oklahoma State shot 34 percent from 3-point range this season. Saturday, the Cowgirls shot just eight 3-pointers, making three (38 percent). Limiting those attempts had a price.

Blame human nature for the next concern. After that initial burst, there never really was a knockout punch. The Irish — and the game — flattened out. Oklahoma State never really threatened. Notre Dame never really pulled away, either.

Could be the textbook definition of cruise control.

That’s a tenuous line to tiptoe. A team can’t get complacent with its lead and obvious dominance. On the other hand, style points aren’t handed out on the scoreboard.

“Our adrenaline was pumping at the beginning of the game,” McGraw said. “We were tired (after the run). I think we were spent because we were so hyped for the game. After that first timeout (16:29, 14-0 lead), there was a little bit of a letdown.”

A team without leaders might draw red flags. Not the Irish, though. Seniors Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa aren’t going to let this trickle away. Three previous tastes of the Final Four have given them quite an appetite for No. 4.

A couple of missed “Jewelly-oops” and the occasional pass in the third row of the media section aren’t going to spoil what can be a really special run.

The biggest unresolved post-game question was the color of McGraw’s stilettos.

“Blue suede,” she said, with a fashion-conscious flair.

She said they matched her shirt.

Sorry, looked like purple.

Al Lesar: 574-235-6318

Notre Dame's Kayla McBride, right, competes for the ball with Oklahoma State's Brittany Atkins during Saturday's regional semifinal at Purcell Pavilion. The Irish won, 89-72. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)