Markisha Wright is ready when she is called for Notre Dame

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – Even Markisha Wright managed a little ironic chuckle Sunday when she arrived at the Purcell Pavilion to get dressed with her Notre Dame women’s basketball teammates for their annual Pink Zone game to bring awareness to breast cancer.

Wright, whose own mother Nichole has battled the disease, ended up with uniform No. 30 for the game because her usual No. 34 was not available. Not a slight, of course, just a human mistake and the 6-foot-2 Wright, who along with fellow seniors Madison Cable and Whitney Holloway have seen the Irish compile a 128-9 (.934) record and go to three straight Women’s Final Fours, didn’t let it bother her. She merely took her usual seat on the bench as Notre Dame took on Wake Forest and its hoop handful Dearica Hamby.

“It was not about the number on my back,” Wright said. “It was about playing for the people who have fought the disease.”

Still, it’s a tough, thankless job sitting on the bench but someone has to do it, and few players have a better attitude for that role than Wright, a highly touted high school standout from Des Moines East High School in women’s basketball-mad Iowa. She has a positive attitude and gives her all in practice, which is why she is one of three tri-captains (along with Holloway and junior Michaela Mabrey) on the 21-2 Irish team that tries to maintain its share of the Atlantic Coast Conference lead as 15-7 Virginia visits the Purcell Pavilion at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“I don’t think about it,” Wright replied when asked if she would like to play more. “My job is to prepare the team in practice and be prepared in case my name is called and be ready to go.”

Wright certainly was when coach Muffet McGraw inserted her at the 15:58 mark of the first half with the Irish leading just 10-9 and Hamby asserting herself both in scoring and rebounding. When the game was done, Wright may have had her best quality performance of the season – she had eight points, five rebounds, an assist and a steal in 14 minutes – as the Irish reigned in Hamby somewhat in the second half on way to a 92-63 victory.

Afterward, McGraw found little wrong about Wright. “We thought she could guard (Hamby) away from the basketball and be physical with her inside,” McGraw said. “Markisha is always ready, she is someone that we can count on being ready. She gave us good minutes at both ends of the floor.”

McGraw’s opinion about Wright hadn’t changed by Tuesday as the Irish got into serious preparations for a Virginia team that may provide Notre Dame with its stiffest defensive challenge of the season. Virginia’s fourth-year head coach Joanne Boyle has started the same five players for all 22 games this season, and the two best are guard Faith Randolph (outside) and Sarah Imovbioh (inside). Randolph, a 5-10 junior guard, is leading the Cavs in scoring at 17.6 points per game and is hitting 37-percent from beyond the 3-point arch. Imovbioh, a 6-2 senior forward from Nigeria, has 10 double-doubles this season and is averaging 13.6 points and a league-leading 10.8 rebounds.

“’Keesh’ is someone we can use against Imovbioh,” McGraw acknowledged. “Virginia have us a really good game last year, and when they have that inside-outside combination going, it makes them difficult to guard. Plus they have other good players and they shoot 3s very well.”

The other three starters for Virginia are freshman forward Lauren Moses, freshman guard Mikayla Venson and sophomore guard Breyana Mason. Mason is shooting 47.7 percent from 3-point land while Venson is at 40.5. Venson, the ACC freshman of the week, hit all six of her 3-point attempts in a 71-63 victory over North Carolina State last Thursday, and Virginia shot 52.6 percent from beyond the arch in its 77-72 victory last Sunday at Clemson.

So it’s important that McGraw can depend on her bench players to wear the Cavaliers down.

“We want to get the transition going,” McGraw said. “That’s our game. If we can do that and sub a little bit, playing our top seven, I think we can wear teams down in the second half.”

The Irish have been receiving standard performances from its non-starters this season. Cable and freshman Kathryn Westbeld usually are the players to get the first calls, but Wright, freshman Mychal Johnson and junior Hannah Huffman usually receive quality minutes. And if things are going well, that means practice contributors Holloway and Diamond Thompson get to see some game action, too. Lately, however, Holloway (foot) and Thompson (calf) have battled through injuries of their own.

“The bench is what makes the team,” McGraw said. “Those kind of players are the heart and soul of the team. We’ve really missed Whitney at practice. She brings energy, intensity. We really need that on the team and you really appreciate what they all can do for you.”

As Markisha Wright said, it’s not about the number on the back of the uniform, no matter its color. It’s about the name on the front, which is consistent even when the color – white, blue, green or pink – is not.

WORTH NOTING: This will be the fourth game between the two schools and first at Notre Dame. The Irish lost the first two games – 68-40 on Feb. 22, 1981 in Chicago and 79-59 on Jan. 4, 1988 in Charlottesville, Va. – but prevailed last season 79-72 on Jan. 12, 2014 in Charlottesville. The Irish were led by Natalie Achonwa (26 points, 16 rebounds), Kayla McBride (23 points, five assists) and Jewell Loyd (17 points, seven rebounds, three assists). Virginia was paced by Faith Randolph’s 23 points and Sarah Imovbioh’s 18 points and 12 rebounds. … The Irish, who share first place in the ACC with Florida State, have won seven straight since a 78-63 loss at Miami on Jan. 8. … The Cavaliers have won two straight – 71-63 vs. North Carolina State on Jan. 29 and 77-72 at Clemson Feb. 1 – after losing three straight. … Likely because its last three victories came against Clemson, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Clemson – Nos. 13-15 in the ACC standings – Notre Dame dropped from first to second behind Tennessee in the latest NCAA Women’s Basketball RPI. Virginia remained 94th among the 349 Division I schools. … In NCAA individual statistics, Notre Dame freshman Brianna Turner continues to pace the nation in field-goal percentage at 67.6 and Loyd is 15th nationally in scoring at 21.3 points per game. Imovbioh is seventh nationally in FG shooting (58.9), 17th in rebounds per game (10.8) and fifth in offensive rebounds per game (4.9). … In team statistics, the Irish are second in field-goal percentage (50.2), third in scoring offense (85.1 ppg), fifth in scoring margin (24.0 ppg), sixth in assists per game (18.8), 10th in 3-point shooting percentage (38.1), 15th in rebound margin (+9.2), 15th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.25) and 19th in free-throw percentage (75.4). … Virginia is 25th in turnovers per game (13.4) and 3-point shooting percentrage (36.4). … Virginia made 10 3-pointers against Clemson, shooting 52.6 percent from beyond the arch. … In the last two games, Virginia has hit 21 of 34 3-pointers (61.7 percent).

WORTH QUOTING: “(Virginia is) a really good team with a great inside-outside combo with (Faith) Randolph and (Sarah) Imovbioh. Plus the other players can shoot 3s, so you can’t just leave anybody else.” – Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw.

Notre Dame’s Markisha Wright looks for a shot with pressure from Wake Forest’s Kandice Ball during the Notre Dame Pink Zone game against Wake Forest on Sunday. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: No. 4 Notre Dame (21-2, 8-1 ACC) vs. Virginia (15-7, 5-4 ACC)

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

WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available

TV: ESPN3. The game can be seen via live streaming video using the WatchESPN app.

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