Notre Dame women look to fine-tune heading into stretch run

John Fineran
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Now that the first month of 2015 is in the rearview mirror, the fourth-ranked Notre Dame women’s basketball team could say it’s finally seeing daylight amidst all the snowflakes Mother Nature is sending its way.

Starting with a 1 p.m. Sunday matinee with Wake Forest, the Irish have just eight Atlantic Coast Conference games remaining in the regular season over the next 29 days and five of those games are inside the friendly concourses of the Purcell Pavilion.

While the Irish (20-2 overall, 7-1 ACC) may be a little weary from their recent travels along Tobacco Road, they can look at the month of February as a chance to get their physical and mental games strengthened on the practice floor. Following home games with the Demon Deacons (10-12, 1-7) Sunday and Virginia (14-7, 4-4) Thursday night and a trip to Boston College a week from Sunday, Notre Dame has eight days before the first of two Big Monday home games, against Duke on Feb. 16.

It’s a chance for coach Muffet McGraw to do what she likes best — teach. And there are plenty of lessons she would like to impart on her team from what she has seen in the last four outings of a six-game winning streak — 88-77 over Tennessee Jan. 19, 89-76 over Georgia Tech Jan. 22, 74-36 at Clemson Jan. 24 and 74-50 Thursday at Virginia Tech. The team’s 78-63 setback on Jan. 8 at Miami seems ages ago.

Nothing major, just little things like rebounding, which has been a year-long concern, and more recently unforced turnovers, and consistency in assist-to-turnover ratios.

“I thought our passing wasn’t as sharp as it could have been," McGraw said, pointing to the 14 assists in the Virginia Tech game, almost five short of their average.

That translated to an assist-to-turnover ratio Thursday night (1.07) that was below ND's standard of 1.26 (15th nationally and second in the ACC). Villanova leads the nation at 1.74.

“I want to be comfortably positive,” McGraw said. “That’s enough for me.”

Among the players with significant minutes, point guard Lindsay Allen is among the nation’s leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.06 (49th nationally, third ACC). Michaela Mabry is at 2.03, Madison Cable and Mychal Johnson are at 1.64, Hannah Huffman is at 1.57, Whitney Holloway at 1.50 and Jewell Loyd is at 1.39. All of them guards whose numbers would be better, of course, if they cut down on their turnovers.

The same is true about the post players. Freshman Kathryn Westbeld, who had a career-high 17 points while celebrating her 19th birthday at Virginia Tech, is the best of the lot at 0.95 followed by Markisha Wright at 0.81, Taya Reimer at 0.77, Diamond Thompson at 0.67 and Brianna Turner at 0.25.

Westbeld’s number has been high, because she has spent most of her freshman campaign thinking pass first and shot second. That’s starting to change, and the Irish could benefit.

“Before I was a little hesitant and almost timid to shoot or look to score at all,” the 6-foot-3 Westbeld said. “I’ve just always been a team player and always passed a lot and passed up a lot of shots. Now the coaches and my teammates have been telling me, ‘We need you to shoot more.’ So I’m trying to look for my shot more.”

There are a lot of things McGraw likes about Westbeld’s game.

“I like her versatility,” the Irish coach said. “Kathryn can shoot the ball. She can put it on the floor and get by people. She can go either way. She can shoot 3s. She’s a good passer and she moves to an open spot, (because) she’s very instinctive.”

You’re either born with instincts or not. But you can fine-tune them better in practice than in games, and Notre Dame will have at least 20 practices in the next month to address a lot of issues.

As for Sunday’s outing against the Demon Deacons, McGraw is having a hard time swallowing the fact that Wake Forest’s 64-62 victory Thursday over Clemson was its first this season in the ACC.

Coach Jen Hoover’s team dropped its first seven league contests but played the ranked teams tough, losing to Duke 70-63, Louisville (79-68) and Syracuse (73-62). Only a 110-80 setback at Florida State Jan. 25 has gone against the norm.

“They’re scary,” McGraw said. “They’ve been in every game.”

Notre Dame has three freshmen (Turner, Westbeld and Johnson) and two sophomores (Allen and Reimer) among its top eight players. Wake Forest has three freshmen and six sophomores on its roster, led by 5-9 freshman guard Amber Campbell, who is averaging 11.1 points.

It was Campbell who stole the inbounds pass and scored with 0.3 seconds remaining to beat the Tigers.The Demon Deacons are led by Dearica Hamby, a 6-foot-3 senior forward who is averaging a double double — 20.1 points and 10.3 rebounds a game.

“She’ll be a handful for us,” McGraw said.

Pink Zone game

The Irish will wear special pink uniforms and shoes against Wake Forest to bring awareness to the fight against breast cancer. The team has been accepting donations, pledges per 3-pointers made and selling special clothing, blankets, Fannie Mae chocolate bars, green and pink writing pens at the team’s Pink Zone table in Heritage Hall . Those season-long fundraising efforts culminate this weekend with an exercise bike peddle-a-thon at Knollwood Country Club. Also lending support are the College of Science and Notre Dame RecSports.

The Irish uniforms and shoes will be auctioned off to raise funds for the Pink Zone. The team has raised almost $750,000, with 20 percent of that supporting the national Kay Yow Cancer Fund and 80 percent staying in the community to help local organizations such as Secret Sisters Society, Your Survivors, Women’s Task Force and Riverbend Cancer Services.

“It’s really a big day for all of us,” said McGraw, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor. “Some of the girls have had family members who have gone through breast cancer. There are so many people who have helped to make this a community event.”

Georgia Tech forward Zaire O'Neil, left, drives the lane as Notre Dame forward Kathryn Westbeld defends. Irish coach Muffet McGraw wants the freshman to become more offensive-minded. (AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND)

WHO: No. 4/4 Notre Dame (20-2, 7-1 ACC) vs. Wake Forest (10-12, 1-7 ACC)

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

WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ACC-Regional Sports Networks (Comcast Channel 101), ESPN3 via WatchESPN app.

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

WEATHER STATUS: A winter storm warning has been issued for St. Joseph County from 7 p.m. ET Saturday through 4 am ET Monday. According to ACC regulations, as long as both teams and the game officials can make it to the arena (and ND officials fully expect that to be the case), the game will be played on time and as scheduled.

WORTH NOTING: This is the third game in the series between the two teams with Notre Dame holding a 2-0 edge, thanks to victories in the 2009-10 season at South Bend (92-69) and last season (86-61), Notre Dame's first in the ACC. The Irish, who won their first eight before losing to Connecticut and then won seven before losing to Miami, are now in the midst of a six-game winning streak that has them atop of the ACC standings at 7-1, along with ninth-ranked Florida State and eighth-ranked Louisville. ... Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd is 14th nationally and first in the ACC in scoring with her 21.4 average. ... Forward Brianna Turner leads the ACC and the nation in field-goal shooting percentage at 66.7 and is third in the ACC in blocked shots per game at 2.68. ... Point guard Lindsay Allen is second in the league in assists per game (5.0). ... Junior wing Michaela Mabrey is fourth in the ACC in 3-point shooting percentage at 38.5 that is matched by freshman Kathryn Westbeld and surpassed by Allen (42.3) and senior Madison Cable (46.3). Westbeld, Allen and Cable aren't ranked nationally, because they haven't taken enough 3-point shots to qualify. ... As a team, Notre Dame is second nationally in field-goal percentage (50.1), third in points per game (84.8), fifth in scoring margin (+23.8), sixth in assists per game (18.8), 11th in 3-point shooting percentage (38.0) and 15th in rebounds margin (+9.1).

WORTH QUOTING: "I was really pleased again with Taya's performance — 10 rebounds and nine points — (and she) got a (front) tooth knocked out and came back into the game." Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw on sophomore forward Taya Reimer's play in Thursday's 74-50 victory at Virginia Tech.