Talented UCLA frosh to test Notre Dame women's basketball

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

In a lot of ways, Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw knows the pain of UCLA coach Cori Close, most of it mutually inflicted by Connecticut.

Last Sunday, Close’s young Bruins team traveled to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., to take on No. 2 Connecticut, which seems to be finding its way again after being upset early in the season by Stanford. UConn prevailed, 86-50, and 11-1 ND understands, falling 76-58, on Dec. 6 in South Bend.

“Obviously, everyone struggles against UConn,” McGraw said prior to her fourth-ranked and team’s flight to Los Angeles for Sunday’s game against 4-6 UCLA at 4 p.m. EST in historic Pauley Pavilion, the arena built by the late John Wooden. “That’s not much of a measuring stick.”

But in a way, it is. UConn, the two-time defending NCAA champion, has shown both UCLA and Notre Dame how far the clubs must go if they hope to do special things come March.

Heading into the season, the Bruins’ hopes rested a great deal on a five-player freshman class that was rated No. 1 by espnW when the 2014 recruiting season was over. Four of the players – 5-foot-6 point guard Jordin Canada (No. 4 overall), 6-foot-2 forward Lajahna Drummer (No. 8), 5-foot-8 guard Recee’ Caldwell (No. 19) and 6-foot-4 forward Monique Billings (No. 38) – have made immediate contributions, with Canada and Caldwell each starting games. Caldwell (5.6 points per game) started against the Huskies but was held to two points on 1-of-6 shooting, while Canada (averaging 8.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game) came off the bench and scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting.

“I told our team that there’s two words they need to go home with (for Christmas),” Close said following UConn’s rout. “Humble – we got humbled in a lot of ways – and hope. We had some positive moments and showed some glimpses of what we can grow into. We have a long way to.”

Nirra Fields, a 5-foot-9 junior, paces UCLA with averages of 15.3 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. Next is Kari Korver, a 5-foot-9 redshirt sophomore, who is averaging 11.0 points a game after scoring a team-high 14 against the Huskies. Coming off the bench, Billings is averaging 6.4 points and 6.0 rebounds and Drummer 6.1 points and 4.2 rebounds.

“They are talented; they’re just young,” McGraw noted. “I think you are seeing some growing pains. But they’re getting better every game.”

McGraw wishes she could say the same about her team, which won its first eight games without much of a sweat. But the season took a detour in Notre Dame’s 92-72 victory over Maryland Dec. 3 in Fort Wayne when 6-foot-3 freshman phenom Brianna Turner, the No. 2 player on the 2014 espnW recruit list, suffered a dislocation of her right shoulder early in the contest. Turner, who was averaging 15.3 points and 6.1 rebounds a game entering the game, did not play against UConn and without her, Notre Dame struggled in victories over DePaul (94-93 in overtime) and Michigan (70-50).

Without Turner, junior All-American Jewell Loyd stepped up her game, scoring 31 against UConn, a career-high 41 against DePaul and 14 against Michigan when sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen scored a career-high 17.

Last Sunday, Turner returned, wearing a brace on her right shoulder, and she had a game-high 19 points (on 7-of-8 shooting) plus five blocks in Notre Dame’s 64-50 over Saint Joseph’s. Loyd had 16 and Allen and Taya Reimer had 10 each, but the rest of the team struggled. The bench produced just seven points – five from freshman guard Mychal Johnson and two from freshman forward Kathryn Westbeld – and the Irish got just two points from its wing guards Michaela Mabrey (who had them) and Madison Cable, who scored zero points two games after scoring 20 points and pulling down 11 rebounds in a starting role against DePaul.

In short, the only thing consistent about the Irish in December has been the inconsistency of the contributors.

“It’s a team on which anything can happen,” McGraw said. “That’s where we are right now. We’re not the most consistent team right now. We’re not sure whom we can count on right now. We really need to find some consistency, and until we do, we’re going to struggle.”

The Irish coach still is looking for some more toughness on defense and on the offensive boards.

“We’ve got to be careful with every team,” McGraw said. “We’re just not good enough to look past anyone. We’re taking every game as the most important game on the schedule.”

Sunday at UCLA, the object will be to end December better than it started.

WORTH NOTING: UCLA leads the series, 9-6, including 5-2 in Los Angeles but the Irish have won the last two games (90-48 last season in South Bend and 76-64 in 2012 at Los Angeles). … The Irish are ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press media and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association/USA Today polls. … The teams have played one common foe – current consensus No. 2 Connecticut, which beat then No. 2/1 Notre Dame 76-58 on Dec. 6 in South Bend and UCLA 86-50 last Sunday in the Mohegan Sun Arena at Uncasville, Conn. … The Bruins were ranked No. 23 in the AP Top 25 preseason poll but are 0-4 against ranked teams – UCLA lost at then No. 13 North Carolina, 84-68, Nov. 16; to No. 10 Texas in Los Angeles, 75-65, Nov. 23; to No. 15 Nebraska, 71-66, in Los Angeles, 71-66, Nov. 28; and No. 2 Connecticut. … Notre Dame is 3-1 against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 when it played them. … Following the game Sunday, Notre Dame flies back to South Bend to begin preparation for its Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Florida State Jan. 2 at 7 p.m. in the Purcell Pavilion. … That is the first of 16 ACC regular-season games the Irish will play from Jan. 2 through March 1 with the only non-conference game coming Monday, Jan. 19 against No. 8 Tennessee at the Purcell Pavilion at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. … Freshman Brianna Turner’s 68.5 field-goal percentage ranks second nationally to Oregon State’s Ruth Hamblin (68.9). … Jewell Loyd’s 22.6 ppg is 12th nationally. Kelsey Plum of Washington leads at 26.1. … Notre Dame is fifth in scoring offense (87.0 ppg), fourth in scoring margin (30.4 ppg), fourth in field-goal percentage (49.7), 10th in free-throwing shooting percentage (77.3), eighth in assists per game (19.1) and 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.33).

WORTH QUOTING: “We’re not the most consistent team right now. We’re not sure whom we can count on right now,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.

The Irish could use some production from Notre Dame junior guard Michaela Mabrey in Sunday's game against UCLA. Mabrey had just two points in last week's 64-50 win over St. Joseph. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)