Focus, boards require attention for Notre Dame women's basketball

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

There is good and bad when you have a young women’s basketball team. 

The bad, of course, are the mistakes and the growing pains. The good? Well, youth can be molded, and there always are pleasant surprises along the way with youthful energy.  

So Thursday night after letting her frustrations spill out following her fourth-ranked team’s 89-76 victory over Georgia Tech, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw probably is somewhat comforted knowing that young legs might respond better when the Irish visit Clemson, S.C., Saturday at 5 p.m.

McGraw wasn’t buying the letdown theory Thursday night – that Notre Dame would automatically struggle against the Yellow Jackets because it was coming off big victories at No. 12 North Carolina (89-79) on Jan. 15 and last Monday at home against No. 6 Tennessee (88-77).

“We (the coaching staff) are going to do everything we can to get them ready,” McGraw said, “but when we leave the locker room that’s up to them. We have got to focus on that, because everyone in this league can beat us, as we learned at Miami.”

McGraw’s core rotation is now essentially seven players – senior reserve Madison Cable, junior starters Jewell Loyd and Michaela Mabrey, sophomore starters Taya Reimer and Lindsay Allen and a pair of freshmen – starter Brianna Turner and reserve Kathryn Westbeld. Two other guards – junior Hannah Huffman and freshman Mychal Johnson – also see minutes depending on the defenses the Irish are facing.

Loyd, growing in a leadership role, wasn’t exactly pleased with her team’s performance against the Yellow Jackets, either. "Letdown'' is not acceptable.

“That’s not an excuse,” said Loyd after scoring a team-high 29 points (after 34 against Tennessee) with five rebounds, three steals and a career-high-tying seven assists. “We have to be ready every single game. There are no off days.”

The unexpected 78-63 setback to the Hurricanes on Jan. 8 is the only blemish in ACC league play for the Irish, who are 5-1 and tied for first in the league with Miami, Florida State and Louisville. McGraw can also point out to her team that on any given night in the league a team can rise up and pull off an upset as stunning as cellar-dwelling Boston College's 60-56 victory over No. 15 Duke and a little less shocking as No. 17 Florida State’s 68-63 victory over No. 4 Louisville were Thursday night. If not for a strong start Thursday against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame might have joined Duke and Louisville on the losing end of the final score.

Starting with Clemson, Notre Dame’s next three games are against teams with 9-10 records at the bottom of the ACC. The 1-5 Tigers’ victory over Virginia Tech on the opening night of ACC play in early January has kept second-year coach Audra Smith’s youthful team (Clemson’s roster has eight freshmen) above winless Wake Forest (0-5) and Virginia Tech (0-6).

Particularly frustrating for McGraw has been Notre Dame’s inability to find any consistency rebounding the basketball. Not only has the inconsistency been evident game-to-game – the Irish looked good on the boards against North Carolina and Tennessee but so-so against Miami and Georgia Tech – but also evident within the game. Thursday night, for instance, Notre Dame jumped out to a 16-5 edge on the boards (including 5-1 on the offensive boards) in building an 18-point first-half lead, but then was outrebounded the rest of the way 25-18 (including 10-6 on the offensive boards).

“I haven’t been happy with the rebounding in a long time,” said McGraw who believes more effort could solve some of those board woes.

The frustration boils over when McGraw sees her best rebounders, Turner and Reimer, go long unproductive stretches. Turner, who had a career-high 18 rebounds against the Tar Heels, had just three in Monday’s victory over the Vols and then just four Thursday against the Yellow Jackets when she was saddled with foul trouble and played just 17 minutes. Reimer, meanwhile, may have had eight rebounds against Georgia Tech but just three came in the final 27:25 of the game.

Everything is correctable in practice, which McGraw, the teacher, enjoys more than anything else. Problem is the schedule sometimes doesn’t allow McGraw her classroom work. Following Clemson, Notre Dame is off until a Thursday, Jan. 29 visit to Virginia Tech that is followed by a Sunday, Feb. 1 home game against Wake Forest.

“I have to wait until Monday to get what I need out of this (game),” McGraw said Thursday night. “We looked a little tired at times tonight. We have to be careful with what we do (in practice Friday). It’s been a long stretch. It’s hard – they are back in class, back in their routine (as student-athletes) – so hopefully we’ll be able to get a little bit out of practice, mentally at least, before we fly out (Friday afternoon).”

WORTH NOTING: When Notre Dame played its first official ACC game, Clemson was the opponent on Jan. 5, 2014 in South Bend and the Irish prevailed 71-51 in the only meeting between the two schools. … Notre Dame is 21-1 (.955) in league play and 55-3 (.948) overall since beginning play in the ACC last season. … This is Notre Dame’s third game of the week ... As of Friday, ND's Brianna Turner leads the nation in field-goal shooting (68.6) percentage. … Senior Nikki Dixon, a 5-10 wing, is averaging a team-high 15.5 points with 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Last season, the Irish held her to five points. … After opening its ACC season with a 63-54 victory over Virginia Tech on Jan. 2, Clemson has dropped five straight. … Head coach Audra Smith started the season with nine freshmen on her roster. … Clemson leads the nation in minutes played by freshmen (2,083) and percentage of playing time by freshmen (54.5). … The bench has scored 44.2 percent of the points this season and 33.8 percent of Clemson’s shots have been from beyond the 3-point line.

WORTH QUOTING: “I think it’s up to the leaders on the team to get everybody ready to play. … We have got to focus on that because everyone in this league can beat us.” – Notre Dame head coach

Muffet McGraw, who was disappointed with her team’s performance in its 89-76 victory over Georgia Tech Thursday.

Notre Dame’s Taya Reimer (12) fights for a rebound with several Tennessee players Monday, January 19, 2015, during the Tennessee-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

WHO: No. 6/5 Notre Dame (18-2, 5-1) vs. Clemson (9-10, 1-5 ACC)

WHERE: James Corcoran Littlejohn Coliseum (10,325), Clemson, S.C.

WHEN: Saturday at 5 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: None. The game can be seen via live streaming video at clemsontigers.com.

RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9), WHPD-FM (92.1), WatchND (watchnd.tv)

STATS: clemsontigers.com