No rest for weary Notre Dame women's hoops team

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

Fourteen games into its season, the fourth-ranked Notre Dame women's basketball team is still a work in progress, and its best players know it.

"We've got to go back to practice and that's where it starts in practice," junior All-America guard Jewell Loyd said Friday night after the Irish held off a pesky Florida State, 74-68, in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener for both teams.

Former Georgetown and NBA standout Allen Iverson may not have liked practice, but Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw and her players do. Unfortunately, the Irish have little time to practice as they get going in the ACC. After a film review, Notre Dame hopped on a charter to Syracuse, N.Y., for a Sunday afternoon test at 1 p.m. against the No. 21/22 Orange in the huge Carrier Dome where the Irish were scheduled for a Saturday workout.

"We're a young team," Loyd said. "We're still working on communication and that's something we're going to grow in and get better with. It's baby steps right now."

And the infants won't have much time to burp, what with games at Miami Thursday and with Boston College next Sunday coming up quickly.

Loyd and sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen, Notre Dame's most consistent players lately, combined for 38 points and several big plays down the stretch to rally past a Florida State team that gave the Irish fits with their athletic ability and physical play.

Syracuse (10-3), coming into its first ACC game with victories over Cornell (76-59 on Dec. 28) and Central Connecticut State (74-43 on Dec. 30) at the Carrier Dome, may be even more dangerous than Florida State. The three losses suffered by Quentin Hillsman's team all came against Top 25 competition. The Orange lost 67-63 to then No. 1/2 South Carolina Nov. 28 at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas and then dropped back-to-back contests in the Florida Sunshine Classic in Winter Park to No. 9/9 Baylor (74-72 on Dec. 19) and No. 18/21 Michigan State (89-76 on Dec. 21).

The Irish, of course, beat the Spartans, 71-63, in East Lansing, Mich., back on Nov. 19, which now seems so long ago. Since then, the Irish had to play through a shoulder injury to 6-foot-3 freshman forward Brianna Turner, who missed the 76-58 loss to two-time defending NCAA champion Connecticut on Dec. 6 and two struggling winning efforts against DePaul (94-93 in overtime) and Michigan (70-50).

While Turner's efforts in the three victories since she returned, Saint Joseph's (64-50), UCLA (82-67) and Florida State, can't be dismissed, especially her double-double against the Bruins and five blocked shots in each game, there are moments in games during which her slender frame gets pushed around. She's not the only one learning from the bench.

Sunday, Notre Dame will face another athletic and physical team in Syracuse. It is led by 6-foot-4 sophomore center Briana Day who is averaging a double-double this season with 11.1 points and 10.9 rebounds and also 2.9 blocks a game. Sophomore guard Alexis Peterson leads the team in scoring at 13.8 points per game and averages 4.7 assists, while senior guard Diamond Henderson is averaging 12.2 points game off the bench. Plus, Syracuse got a post-Christmas gift with the return of junior guard Brittney Sykes who suffered a severe knee injury in last year's NCAA tournament.

Syracuse is one of the top offensive rebounding teams (18.2 per game, ninth nationally) and in forcing turnovers (a 7.92 margin, sixth nationally) and that has helped the Orange overcome a poor shooting eye (38.0 percent) for the most part.

Rebounding, of course, has frustrated McGraw and the Irish, who have lost the battle of the boards in their last two games, and Friday the Seminoles enjoyed a 16-6 edge on the offensive boards that was 8-2 at halftime.

"You have to go want the ball and we don't right now," McGraw said. "I think it's desire. It's just effort. Our offense is a little spread when we have good spacing, so it takes a little bit more effort to get to the backboard and we just did a really poor job.:

Loyd, who leads the ACC in scoring at 21.6 points per game, and Allen, who is averaging 16.7 points over the last four, both do their share on the boards at 5.6 and 4.0 a game, respectively. Indeed, it was Loyd’s huge offensive rebound of an Allen miss and resulting 3-point play with 1:58 left in regulation that sealed the victory against the Seminoles.

:We came out a little shell-shocked," Allen said. "In the ACC, every game is going to be tough now. We have to focus on every opponent and come out and play tough no matter who we are playing or where they are rated in the conference."

Toughness sometimes can be taught in practice but most times only comes from playing against someone else other than a teammate.

Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd throws a pass during ND's 74-68 escape over Florida State on Friday. (AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND)

WHO: No. 4/4 Notre Dame (13-1, 1-0 ACC) vs. No. 21/22 Syracuse (10-3, 0-0 ACC)

WHERE: Carrier Dome (35,121), Syracuse, N.Y.

WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ACC/RSN Network (check your cable system).

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

WORTH NOTING: This will be the 30th meeting between the two schools that are former members of the Big East Conference. ... The Irish won 101-64 Feb. 9, 2014 in South Bend and now hold a 27-2 edge in the series. ... Notre Dame has won the last 14 games since an 84-79 loss on March 3, 2002 in the Big East Tournament at Piscataway, N.J. ... Notre Dame has won the previous four games played at the Carrier Dome, though the Orange came close on Jan. 30, 2010 when the Irish prevailed 74-73. ... In the latest NCAA team statistics, Notre Dame ranks second in field-goal percentage (49.9), fourth in 3-point percentage (40.1), fifth in points per game (85.7), fifth in scoring margin per game (27.6), ninth in assists per game (18.3) and 11th in free-throw shooting percentage (76.7). Syracuse is ninth in points per game (73.2), sixth in turnover margin (7.92), ninth in offensive rebounds per game (18.2), 17th in blocks per game (5.9), 27th in steals (11.6), 30th in margin of victory per game (16.2) but ranks 240th in shooting percentage (38.0) and 194th in free-throw percentage (67.3). ... Individually, Syracuse's 6-4 sophomore center Briana Day is 14th in double-doubles (7), 17th in blocks per game (2.92), 18th in offensive rebounds per game (4) and 21st in rebounds per game (10.9). Notre Dame's Brianna Turner is second nationally in shooting percentage (66.3) and 30th in blocked shots (2.36). Jewell Loyd leads the ACC and is 16th nationally in points per game (21.6). ... By the way, Day (who wears uniform 50) has a twin sister on the Syracuse roster and her name is Bria (whose uniform number is 55). ... Lindsay Allen's buzzer-beater before halftime against Florida State was the first for Notre Dame since Breona Gray hit one on Jan. 2, 2007 at Seton Hall. ... Syracuse is 0-3 against teams ranked in the Top 25 ... the Orange lost to then No. 1/2 South Carolina 67-63 in the Junkanoo Jam at Freeport, Grand Bahamas, on Nov. 28; lost to then No. 9/9 Baylor 74-72 in the Florida Sunshine Classic at Winter Park on Dec. 19; and lost to then No. 18/21 Michigan State 89-76 in the Florida Sunshine Classic at Winter Park on Dec. 21. ... The Spartans are the only common foe for the teams with Notre Dame beating the Spartans 71-63 on Nov. 19 at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. ... The Irish are scheduled to fly back to South Bend after the game before departing for Miami to play the Hurricanes on Thursday, Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. ... The next home game for Notre Dame is Sunday, Jan. 11 against Boston College at 1 p.m.

WORTH QUOTING: "It's baby steps right now." Junior guard Jewell Loyd talking about the youthfulness and growing pains that Notre Dame is experiencing right now.