Notre Dame women need better focus for Louisville

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND –  It’s often difficult for youthful, athletic teams to stay focused in the moment, a fact that Notre Dame’s fourth-ranked women’s basketball team may have found out Thursday night at Georgia Tech. 

Following a solid 63-50 victory over 11th-ranked Duke last Monday night, the Irish may have caught themselves looking ahead to this Monday night’s showdown with No. 8/7 Louisville at the Purcell Pavilion, especially considering the Irish already had beaten Georgia Tech, 89-76, on Jan. 22 in South Bend. 

That may explain, somewhat, the struggles coach Muffet McGraw’s team encountered against a gritty Georgia Tech squad that battled late into the second half before Notre Dame moved away for a 71-61 victory behind 31 points from junior All-American Jewell Loyd. 

“You worry about that with a young team, that they don’t know that every game is so important,” McGraw said. “Now it’s really time to focus.” 

The focus always is better during the postseason. But when you are trying to win a regular-season title, as Notre Dame is seeking to do in its second year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, there’s a tendency to look ahead a little bit. That’s why McGraw hopes that Thursday victory at Georgia Tech will stand as a very good wakeup call. 

“Sometimes there are teams in the league you just don’t match up with,” McGraw said. “In the Big East, South Florida was the team for

us. We always seemed to have a tough time against them. This year, Miami gave us a great game, obviously, in beating us. And (in two games) Georgia Tech matched up with us very well.” 

McGraw might have been disappointed with the way her team struggled through most of the first half against Georgia Tech, which led 34-33 thanks to 11 points from Kaela Davis. But the Irish comeback began with 5:29 remaining when McGraw inserted junior Hannah Huffman to hound Davis, who was held without a point the rest of the half and was very tired in the second half. 

“Hannah battled her, she was relentless, she got through screens and really did a good job,” McGraw said. “She (Davis) did not play well in the second half. The rest of the team was more aware where (Davis) was and Jewell stepped up her game better.” 

The Irish (25-2, 12-1 ACC) have won 11 straight since that 78-63 loss at Miami Jan. 8 and maintain a half-game lead over Florida State, which moved to 12-2 in the league with an 86-68 victory at Boston College Sunday afternoon. 

Louisville enters the game at 11-2 in the ACC (23-3) overall after its fourth straight win, a 69-49 triumph at Virginia Tech last Thursday night. 

Louisville coach Jeff Walz has taken a pair of Cardinal teams (2008-09 and 2012-13) to the NCAA championship game, and they reached the regional final at home a season ago before Maryland ended a 33-5 season. Three players off that team, including leading scorer Shoni Schimmel, moved on to the WNBA.

But Walz has found some more than adequate replacements in a pair of freshmen forwards – 6-foot Mariya Moore, who is averaging 14.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game, and 6-2 Myisha Hines-Allen, who is averaging 12.0 points and 4.9 rebounds. Other top players include senior forwards Sara Hammond (11.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists), Shawnta’ Dyer (7.7 points, 5.4 rebounds) and senior guards Bria Smith (8.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists) and Jude Schimmel (6.9 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists).

The Cardinals, who have lost to Kentucky, Florida State and Duke, are winning by an average of 19.3 points a game while holding opponents to 56.0 points a game (best in the ACC) and shooting percentages of 36.6 percent overall and 28.9 percent from beyond the 3-point line.

“They are very talented,” McGraw said. “This is a very important game for us.”

It should have Notre Dame’s full attention.

Thinking Pink

Notre Dame will wear its white uniforms with pink and blue trim with pink shoes for the third time this season to support the Pink Zone/Play4Kay initiative that raises funds to fight breast cancer. The first time, a Feb. 1 game against Wake Forest, inclement weather ruined the fund-raising efforts. 

Donation buckets will be stationed at Games 8, 9 and 10 of the Purcell Pavilion for fans to offer monetary contributions. There also will be special Pink Zone/Play4Kay items at tables in Heritage Hall outside the upper concourse of the arena. 

All funds raised will be divided between local and national charities (the Foundation of St. Joseph Regional Medical Center and the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, respectively).

WORTH NOTING: This is Notre Dame’s ninth game against a ranked opponent. The Irish are 7-1, the loss a 76-58 setback to then No. 3 Connecticut on Dec. 6 in South Bend. … After a one-season hiatus, former Big East Conference rivals Notre Dame and Louisville renew their rivalry with the Cardinals joining the ACC a season after Notre Dame ran the table (16-0 regular season, 3-0 tournament) in its debut season. … Notre Dame holds a 10-4 edge in the series and has won seven straight. … Notre Dame has won the last 24 games it has played in the month of February going back to a 65-63 loss to West Virginia in South Bend on Feb. 12, 2012. .... Notre Dame has clinched one of the top-four seeds in the upcoming ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., giving Notre Dame a double bye to the March 6 quarterfinals. … Louisville has won four straight since a 66-58 loss at Duke Feb. 2, the latest a 69-49 victory at Virginia Tech with 6-1 redshirt senior forward Shawnta’ Dyer scoring 15 points, 6-0 freshman forward Mariya Moore adding 14 and 5-10 senior guard Bria Smith contributing 12 while 6-1 sophomore forward. ... In league individual statistics, Jewell Loyd leads in scoring at 21.1 points per game, sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen leads in assists with five a game and Brianna Turner is No. 1 (also nationally) in field-goal shooting (66.5 percent). Michaela Mabrey is No. 2 in 3-point shooting (38.7 percent) and Allen is No. 2 in assist/turnover ratio (2.03). … In league team statistics, Louisville is No. 1 in points allowed per game (56.0), assist/turnover ratio (1.25) and No. 2 in field-goal shooting (45.6 percent), assists per game (18.0) and turnover margin (+5.58) ... Notre Dame is No. 1 in points per game (83.6), margin of victory (+23.4), field-goal shooting (49.5 percent), 3-point field-goal shooting (38.5 percent), assists per game (18.6) and personal fouls (14.8), No. 2 in assist/turnover ratio (1.24) and free-throw shooting (74.4 percent).

WORTH QUOTING: “We’ve tried to keep things basic, simpler, as much as we can to help them. But I thought late in the game we looked like veterans.” 

– Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw on her young team pulling away for its 11th straight victory, 71-61, at Georgia Tech last Thursday.

Notre Dame’s Kathryn Westbeld, left, passes the ball to teammate Jewell Loyd, right, as Duke’s Azurá Stevens defends during the Notre Dame-Duke women's basketball game on Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: No. 4/4 Notre Dame (25-2, 12-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 8/7 Louisville (23-3, 11-2 Atlantic Coast Conference)

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

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Some could be available. Check with Murnane Family Ticket Office at Notre Dame by calling (574) 631-7356.

TV: ESPN2.

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

LIVE STATS: und.com