Notre Dame women's basketball spanked by measuring stick

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – It was a measuring stick that delivered a pretty good spanking.

Connecticut’s 76-58 women’s basketball victory over Notre Dame Saturday will stand as a learning experience for both teams.

Education comes easier when it’s not as painful, though.

But… Would it have been as bad had Brianna Turner been in the Notre Dame lineup?

Nobody will ever know. At least not ‘til April.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw was tempted to speculate. Her 6-foot-3 freshman phenom, felled by a shoulder “issue” that has left her availability “day-to-day,” was dressed in street clothes as an early 10-point lead dissolved into disaster.

“I don’t think that…,” and then McGraw stopped. “We don’t have her.”

This, obviously, wasn’t Turner’s “day.”

Would she have impacted third-ranked UConn’s 52-34 rebounding advantage? Would she have helped negate the Huskies’ 44-28 scoring advantage in the paint? Would she have stopped Kiah Stokes from grabbing 18 boards and blocking four shots?

One thing Turner wouldn’t have done was make her Irish teammates tougher.

That’s something the second-ranked Irish have to do on their own.

Sometime early in a 22-4 Connecticut run that ended the first half, Notre Dame stopped being Notre Dame.

Crisp passes stopped happening. Rebounds were hard to come by. Without rebounds, the transition game dried up. Without the transition game, the hope for offensive production fell on the shoulders of Jewell Loyd.

When the Irish are flying, they don’t fly solo.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma, a non-favorite with the 9,149 folks dressed in green, talked about the tweaks he made to spur the turnaround: Guarding Loyd with a bit more zest, and hitting the boards with a purpose.

Once that was accomplished, the pendulum swung.

McGraw, though, hardly acknowledged her nemesis’ strategic moves.

“It was us,” McGraw said. “We looked like a deer in headlights.”

Deer season didn’t end well. The Huskies came away with another trophy they could stuff and hang on the wall.

This wasn’t quite a replay of last year’s national championship avalanche. There were at least a few more redeeming factors.

But it wasn’t pretty, either.

Notre Dame’s most encouraging takeaway is the fact that it’s December, and there’s a lot of learning yet to be done.

One obvious fact to come from Saturday’s game: Notre Dame is built on role players; UConn is built on stars. That’s just part of life in the women’s college basketball.

Stars can be stars on their own. Role players rely on each other.

McGraw called Loyd the “best player on the floor.” After 31 points, most accomplished on her own, it was hard to argue. Beyond Loyd, the production dried up.

Michaela Mabry’s role within the Irish offense is as a shooter. She’s hitting 42 percent from the field, as well as beyond the 3-point line. With Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis in her face and in her head the entire game, Mabry was 0-for-7 from the field, five of those from beyond the arc.

As a team, the Irish shot 29 percent from the field in the first half, 31 percent for the game. They didn’t make a 3-pointer (0-for-4) in the second half.

That’s on the Irish. But don’t sell the UConn defense short. The Huskies were pretty tenacious.

McGraw boiled her team’s problem down to a one-word concept: Toughness, or lack of it.

That’s a monumental issue to try to correct.

If it were concerns with the half-court trap; shooting woes; free-throw shooting … whatever, something tangible; it would be much easier to improve.

Toughness, though, is an abstract that can hardly be measured or taught. It’s either there – in each individual player – or it isn’t. It’s simple to judge, but almost impossible instill.

McGraw can’t coax a player into being tough. It’s a desire that comes from within.

Will four months be enough time for the concept to grow and mature?

We’ll see in April.

Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart (30) and teammates huddle Saturday, December 6, 2014, during the Connecticut-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ
Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner stands in street clothes Saturday, December 6, 2014, before the Connecticut-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. She is injured. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ