Notre Dame women wary of talented Seminoles

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — One thing about streaks: They tend to get broken.

It has been almost three seasons since the Notre Dame women's basketball team lost a regular-season conference basketball game. That 65-63 setback at the hands of then Big East Conference rival West Virginia at the Purcell Pavilion on Feb. 12, 2012 has been followed by 36 straight victories against Big East and now Atlantic Coast Conference rivals.

In its previous lives as first the Athletic and Convocation Center and then the Joyce Center, streaks often died at the hands of Notre Dame, the executioner.

Friday, an under-the-radar Florida State women's basketball team gets a chance to turn the tables on fourth-ranked Notre Dame.

"This is the best team we've played since Connecticut,'' Irish coach Muffet McGraw said of the 13-1 Seminoles, who are unranked but seem up to the task to meet the 12-1 Irish in the opening game of the 2015 ACC regular season. "They are very athletic. They can shoot 3s, they can score inside, they rebound well, and they're a good defensive team.

"I don't know why they are not ranked,'' McGraw added.

The Seminoles, coming off a 73-46 victory over Jacksonville on Monday, have won nine straight since their only setback — an 80-68 loss to Washington in the opening game of the Cancun Challenge on Nov. 27. Under 18-year head coach Sue Semrau, Florida State has defeated one Top 25 opponent in 10 of their last 11 seasons, not including this one.

Washington, which recently upset No. 5 Texas A&M and is currently No. 23 in the Women's Basketball Coaches Association/USA Today poll, wasn't ranked when it beat Florida State, which does have some impressive victories on its 2014-15 resume — a 67-64 overtime victory at Purdue, a 77-51 victory at Florida, a 66-62 triumph at Temple and a 65-54 win at Tulane.

"This is a much better team than last year.'' McGraw said. Last season, Notre Dame knocked off Florida State 81-60 in Tallahassee on Feb. 6 and then 83-57 in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals at Greensboro, N.C., on March 7.

Gone from that team are Natasha Howard and Yashira Delgado. Howard, the fifth player chosen in the WNBA Draft, had 29 against the Irish in Greensboro, while Delgado scored 18 and Howard 11 in the game at Tallahassee.

Two players — Maegan Conwright and Shakena Richardson — sat out last year after transferring from powerhouses Kentucky and Rutgers, respectively, and are making contributions. Semrau's newcomers include Adut Bulgak, a 6-foot-4 Canadian who was the National Junior College Athletic Association player of the year at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College; 6-2 freshman center Ama Debgeon of Germany, and 5-11 freshman forward Shakayla Thomas, a McDonald's All-American from Sylacauga (Ala.) High School.

Bulgak, who already has seven double-doubles this season, is averaging 14.4 points and 9.9 rebounds with 32 blocks. Conwright, a 5-8 redshirt senior, is averaging 11.6 points and 3.5 assists, while shooting 40.0 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Thomas is averaging 9.9 points and 5.1 rebounds a game in just under 20 minutes a game.

Bulgak and Conwright are joined in the starting lineup by returning forward Ivey Slaughter (averaging 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds) and guards Brittany Brown (9.1 points, 4.8 rebounds) and Morgan Jones (8.7 points, 4.1 rebounds).

And as of Monday, Semrau also has the services of sophomore point guard Leticia Romero, a transfer from Kansas State where she averaged 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists and shot nearly 40 percent from 3-point range last season. A member of the Spanish National team, the 5-8 Romero left after Kansas State changed coaches and the NCAA cleared her last week to play immediately.

Against Jacksonville, Romero produced six points, six rebounds and six assists in just under 20 minutes off the bench.

But McGraw has seen plenty of good things from her players in their four victories since losing to Connecticut. In the latest win, an 82-67 triumph at UCLA Sunday, the Irish got a career-high 22 points from sophomore guard Lindsay Allen; the first career double-double (14 points-16 rebounds) from freshman forward Brianna Turner; 11 points from junior wing Michaela Mabrey (who had been struggling but hit 3 of 4 3-pointers down the stretch); and a workmanlike performance from junior All-American Jewell Loyd, who overcame shooting problems with a 12-point, seven-rebound, career-high seven-assist performance.

"We've become more of a team,'' McGraw said. "I think we have a lot of weapons and we've been trying to figure out how to put it together. I think more people are contributing now and we're a better team.''

They had better be. The competition gets better, too.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Notre Dame (12-1, 0-0 ACC) vs. Florida State (13-1, 0-0 ACC)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), South Bend

WHEN: Friday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: None. The game can be seen via live streaming video WatchND.tv at und.com.

RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9)/WHPD-FM (92.1)

WORTH NOTING: The Irish hold a 2-0 lead in the series, winning twice a season ago – 81-60 at Tallahassee Feb. 6 and 83-57 at Greensboro, N.C., in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinals on March 7. … Notre Dame has won a school-record 36 consecutive regular-season conference games dating back to the end of its Big East Conference membership and first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. … The last time Notre Dame lost a conference game was Feb. 12, 2012 when Big East foe West Virginia won 65-63 at the Purcell Pavilion. … Notre Dame is 46-2 in its last 48 games against conference foes, the losses both coming at the hands of Connecticut … Freshman forward Brianna Turner was named national freshman of the week by the United States Basketball Writers Association after recording her first career double-double (14 points, 16 rebounds) with a career-tying five blocked shots in Notre Dame’s 82-67 victory at UCLA. … Turner also received the ACC Freshman of the Week Award for the third time this season. … Junior All-American Jewell Loyd leads the ACC in scoring (and is 16th nationally) with her 21.8 points per game and has now scored in double figures in 56 straight games after netting 12 against UCLA. … In NCAA teams statistics, Notre Dame is third in field-goal shooting percentage (49.8), third in 3-point shooting percentage (40.6), fifth in points per game margin (29.2), sixth in points per game (86.6), seventh in assists per game (19.0), 12th in free-throw percentage (76.8) and 14th in rebounds margin (11.1). … Individually, Turner is tied for first in field-goal percentage with California’s Reshanda Gray at 66.7. … Florida State is fifth nationally in rebounds margin (14.4), 12th in margin of victory (23.4 points per game), 13th in field-goal percentage (46.8), 16th in offensive rebounds per game (17.7) and 19th in points per game (79.6). … Junior Adut Bulgak, a 6-4 center, has seven double-doubles this season.

WORTH QUOTING: “(Florida State) can shoot 3s, they can score inside, they rebound well, they’re a good defensive team. I don’t know why they are not ranked.” – Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw.

Michaela Mabrey and Notre Dame entertain 13-1 Florida State Friday. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)