Dominant frontcourts remain an obstacle for Notre Dame women

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In 2011, Notre Dame met Texas A&M for the national championship. A&M widebody Danielle Adams, who stands 6-foot-1 but is a force in the neighborhood of 240 pounds, powered inside against the Irish for 30 points. The Aggies beat Notre Dame, 76-70, for the title.

In 2012, 6-8 dominator Brittney Griner scored 26 points, had 13 rebounds and blocked five shots to lead Baylor to an 80-61 victory against Notre Dame in the national championship game. Pushed outside by Griner’s presence in the lane, the Irish hit only 36 percent.

In 2013, in the Final Four, 6-4 Breanna Stewart scored 29 points to lead Connecticut to an 83-65 victory against Notre Dame. Stewart and 6-5 Stefanie Dolson led the Huskies, who blocked 12 shots. Notre Dame, unable to score inside, was forced to settle for long, rushed jumpers and shot 30 percent.

In 2014, Notre Dame met Connecticut in the national championship game. Stewart had 21 points and nine rebounds and Dolson 17 points and 16 rebounds. Connecticut wins 79-58.

The taller Huskies outrebound Notre Dame, 54-31, outscored the Irish in the paint, 52-22, and once again forced Notre Dame to shoot quick, deep jumpers leading to a 36 percent field goal clip.

Notice the trend?

In four consecutive trips to the Final Four, Notre Dame has run into a taller, more dominant team inside. The Irish have tried zone and man-to man, double-teaming, fronting, going to four guards to try to outrun the opposing bigs and wear them out and rotating play-ers.

When Notre Dame played Baylor in a regular-season game, McGraw scouted campus for a male athlete in the 6-8 range to prepare her players for what they would face playing against Griner.

Each time in the Final Four, the Irish have had no answer to keep taller, more physical players from getting position.

On Tuesday night, in the national title game against Connecticut, Notre Dame went with a rotation of 6-1 Ariel Braker, 6-2 Markisha Wright, and 6-3 Taya Reimer. The Irish were without 6-3 star Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL injury the week before and couldn’t play in the Final Four.

“We tried person after person,” McGraw said of trying to deal with Connecticut’s Stewart and Dolson. “It didn’t seem as though anybody could stop them.”

Two days before playing Connecticut in the 2014 final, Notre Dame crushed a taller Maryland team, 87-61, largely by outrebounding the Terrapins 50-21. But what worked against Maryland failed against Connecticut. The Irish couldn’t box out against the Huskies, who always seemed to get position, or simply reach over the Irish for boards.

A guard-oriented attack and the perfectly run Princeton offense have carried Notre Dame to great heights the past four seasons, including this season’s 37-game winning streak, but not to the mountaintop. When the Irish did win the national championship in 2001, Notre Dame’s lineup featured Ruth Riley, a 6-5 game-changer inside.

McGraw hopes that incoming recruit Brianna Turner, a 6-foot-3 athletic post who is ranked the No. 2 prospect in the nation according to ESPN’s Hoopgurlz, will give the Irish the inside presence they need to avoid being short-changed in title games.

“Hopefully, with Brianna Turner coming in, we’ll have somebody who is a shot-blocking presence in the lane,” McGraw said. “We haven’t really had that since Ruth Riley.”

Devereaux Peters was a shot blocker for the Irish, but at 6-2, she wasn’t able to counter the strength of Adams, or the towering height of Griner, in 2011 and 2012.

Notre Dame has tried to recruit height. The Irish pursued Stanford’s 6-3 Chiney Ogwumike, a first-team All-American who is a difference-maker inside. She chose to play with her sister Nneka, who was on the Cardinal roster. Notre Dame went after Theresa Plaisance, who is 6-5, but she chose nearby LSU.

Signing Turner was a major victory for the Irish.

In this season’s Hoopgurlz top 100 rankings, there are only five players who are taller than 6-3: No. 1 prospect A’Ja Wilson, 6-5, uncommitted; No. 7 prospect Jatarie White, 6-4, South Carolina; 22. Asia Robeson, 6-4, Auburn; 23. Azura Stevens, 6-4, Duke; Khaalia Hillsman, 6-4, Texas A&M.

Wilson, who is from Hopkins, S.C., has narrowed her choice to Connecticut, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee. She will reveal her college choice on April 16.

“Notre Dame was too far, and Connecticut was in there because they’re Connecticut,” said Bret McCormick of All-Star Girls report. “A’ja grew up 15 minutes from South Carolina’s campus, and they signed one of her good friends, so I think there’s a good chance that’s where she’ll end up.”

McCormick said that a tall player who is skilled can have a tremendous impact on the women’s game, because there are so few available.

“If you get a 6-6 girl, you can do whatever you want defensively, and let her guard the basket and block shots,” McCormick said. “She’s like a goalie in hockey, just sitting back and swatting away shots.”

Even Connecticut had trouble in the tournament against BYU’s 6-7 Jennifer Hamson, before pulling away in the second half.

While taller prospects have been extremely rare the past few seasons, the class of 2015 has more to offer Notre Dame and other schools.

McCormick said the top post prospects in 2015 are 6-6 Nora Keisler of Assumption High School in Louisville; 6-5 Kalani Brown of Slidell, La., (the daughter of former NBA star P.J. Brown), 6-7 Teaira McCowan of Brenham, Texas; and 6-6 Cheyenne Hooper of Knox-ville, Tenn.

“It’s getting better, but the past few years have been extremely limited as far as tall prospects,” McCormick said. “If you got one of the really good ones, it made a huge impact.”

Ratings bonanza

Notre Dame and Connecticut scored a ratings victory for women’s basketball and ESPN. Tuesday’s national championship game between the Irish and Huskies earned a 2.8 rating, the highest rating for an NCAA women’s basketball championship game since 2004, when Connecticut’s victory against Tennessee drew a 3.5 rating.

Whether it was the historical aspect of two unbeatens meeting for the first time in an NCAA Division I basketball championship, the war of words between Irish coach Muffet McGraw and Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, or the magic of the Notre Dame and Connecticut names, the title game was estimated to reach 3.21 million households, the fourth best reach since ESPN began televising the women’s championship in 1996. It jumped 40 percent over last season’s Connecticut national title game against Louisville.

ESPN also announced that nearly 100,000 fans viewed the game on WatchESPN and the special ESPN3 Surround production of the matchup, an all-time high for a women’s college basketball game.

Pairings set

Pairings have been set for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Tournament that Notre Dame will participate in next season.

Games will be held at Notre Dame on Sunday, Nov. 23, Monday, Nov. 24, and Tuesday, Nov. 25, and then the Irish will travel to Uncasville, Conn., to play at Mohegan Sun Arena on Sunday, Nov. 30.

Games at Notre Dame on Nov. 23, will be Notre Dame taking on Holy Cross and Harvard playing Quinnipiac.

On Nov. 24, Notre Dame plays Harvard, and Quinnipiac plays Holy Cross.

Games on Nov. 25 will feature Notre Dame playing Quinnipiac, and Harvard playing Holy Cross.

Notre Dame will play Kansas in the Hall of Fame finale on Nov. 30.

Achonwa update

Achonwa said that no date has been set for her knee surgery. Following her surgery, which should happen in the next week, she will face rehab that will last approximately eight months.

“I’ll take on rehab like I’ve taken on every other challenge in my life,” Achonwa said. “I’ll be working hard and getting back better than ever.”

Curt Rallo: CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Twitter: @rallo_NDInsider

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw looks at her team during Tuesday's national championship game. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)