Rusty or ready? Duke will test rested Notre Dame

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – Most will look at the eight-day break between games for the fourth-ranked Notre Dame women’s basketball team as a good thing.

Of course, it also matters how you come out of the break, which is what Muffet McGraw’s Irish find out Monday night at 9 when 11th-ranked Duke pays a visit to the Purcell Pavilion for a nationally televised game on ESPN2.

Notre Dame (23-2 overall, 10-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) enters the game on a nine-game winning streak thanks to an 89-56 victory at Boston College on Sunday, Feb. 8. Five players scored in double figures for the Irish, led by junior wing Michaela Mabrey’s career-high 20 points.

But the best move of the day – and maybe the season – may have been the team’s quick escape from Massachusetts via charter ahead of a snowstorm that surely could have extended its stay. Instead, the Irish got home around 7 p.m., had Monday and Tuesday off, practiced Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, had Saturday off and practiced Sunday for the Blue Devils who are playing the second of four straight road contests.

Duke, 19-6 overall, began the “road trip” with a 71-45 victory at Virginia Thursday night and is now a half-game back in the ACC with Florida State and Louisville at 10-2 behind Notre

Dame. Notre Dame, FSU, Louisville and Duke are vying to finish in the top four spots of the regular-season standings to secure “double byes” to the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament at Greensboro, N.C. March 4-8.

Needless to say, rest at this point of the season is good for every team, and Notre Dame is no different. It allows the players who have been struggling, like junior All-American Jewell Loyd, espnW’s midseason player of the year, to get away from the hardcourt. Loyd has has hit just 14 of her last 42 shots (33 percent) and fallen to second in the ACC in scoring (behind Wake Forest’s Dearica Hamby) at 20.7 points per game.

“The great thing about Jewell is she’s your best player and your hardest worker,” McGraw said. “The bad thing is she works so hard you can’t even take her out of practice. You take her out and she comes right back in. There’s no such thing as going easy for her. It’s what makes her great. But we almost have to take a day off to rest her.”

One player who McGraw hopes the break doesn’t affect is Mabrey, who has struggled with her shot this season. McGraw encouraged the long-distance shooter from Belmar, N.J., to be more confident with her shot on the court and with her voice as a team leader in the huddles and locker room.

“Shooting is what I’m supposed to be best at and I haven’t been happy with my percentages,” Mabrey said. “I wanted to get into the gym more and work on my shot. I came into this season wanting to be a leader on this team, and I talked to Coach (McGraw) about it and I told her I wanted to be more vocal. I’ve been working on some things and I am feeling pretty good but I’m still not where I want to be.”

Mabrey responded with her best overall game of the season. She added five assists and two steals to the 20 points she scored thanks to 6-of-9 shooting from beyond the 3-point arch.

“A lot of my shots have been just short,” Mabrey said. “So I think it’s just me being tired and not using my legs. For me, if my shots are short I just need to use my legs more. If my shot is long, I don’t do anything. If I hit the back rim I just keep on shooting because I know it’s right there. If it’s to the right or the left I have to adjust a little bit. It’s just knowing. It’s just knowing.”

McGraw knows this – she liked what she saw in Mabrey at Boston College. As a team, Notre Dame is hitting 38.6 percent of its shots from beyond the arc, which leads the ACC and is sixth nationally, and those are some of the shots Duke’s zone defenses may allow.

“I love having that,” McGraw said. “When Mike’s hot like that, it opens up everything on the floor. It makes us a better team.”

Duke is led by 6-3 senior center Elizabeth Williams, who is averaging 14.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 3.0 blocks a game. Redshirt freshman guard Rebecca Greenwell, a 3-point threat, is next with 14.2 points and 6.0 rebounds, while 6-5 freshman guard/forward Azura Stevens is at 13.9 points and 8.2 rebounds. As a team, the Blue Devils lead the nation in rebound margin at plus 13.8 per game and are holding their opponents to 33.7-percent shooting, fifth nationally.

“A hard matchup for us,” McGraw said.

At least the Irish are rested for the challenge.

WORTH NOTING: ND holds a 9-1 lead in the series, including 3-0 at the Purcell Pavilion. ... Notre Dame has won nine straight ... Duke won 71-45 at Virginia Thursday with Rebecca Greenwell scoring 22 points and Azura Stevens grabbing 14 rebounds. ... It was Duke’s sixth straight victory since a 60-56 loss at Boston College on Jan. 22. ... It’s the second of three Big Monday appearances on ESPN2 for the Irish, who earlier beat then No. 5/6 Tennessee 88-77 at Purcell on Jan. 19 and face No. 9/8 Louisville next Monday at 7 p.m. Notre Dame has won its last 22 games played in February. In the latest RPI rankings from the NCAA, Notre Dame is ranked No. 3 and Duke is No. 12. ... Notre Dame is second nationally in field-goal shooting (50.1 percent), third in points per game (84.9), fifth in scoring margin (+24.3 points), sixth in 3-point shooting (38.6 percent), sixth in assists per game (18.8) and 11th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.26). Duke is first nationally in rebound margin (+13.8), fourth in defensive rebounds per game (30.6), fifth in field-goal shooting defense (33.7 percent) and sixth in blocked shots per game (6.6). ... Notre Dame freshman forward Brianna Turner is first nationally in field-goal shooting (67.7 percent), junior Jewell Loyd is 20th nationally in points per game (20.7, second in ACC), junior Michaela Mabrey leads the ACC in 3-point shooting (39.6 percent) and sophomore Lindsay Allen leads the ACC in assists per game (4.9).

WORTH QUOTING: “They are really big, they go 6-(foot)-5, 6-3, 6-4 on the back line. Duke is a hard matchup for us.’’

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw.

Notre Dame’s Michaela Mabrey (23) and Virginia’s Breyana Mason (12) battle for position Thursday, February 5, 2015, during the Virginia-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

WHO: No. 4 Notre Dame (23-2 overall, 10-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 11 Duke (19-6, 10-2 ACC)

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

WHEN: Monday at 9 p.m.

TICKETS: Check availability at (574) 631-7356.

TV: ESPN2

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