Notre Dame's mission to avoid clunkers down stretch

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Between now and April 7, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team’s mission is to become clunker-proof.

Tough task.

Just recently, the Irish have struggled but survived against Duke, Georgia Tech and Louisville. Thursday’s Senior Night 87-59 win over Pitt was a nice way to end the regular season at home, but hardly a challenge.

This Notre Dame team, though, isn’t immune to clunkers. Physical play and rebounding have been issues against most of the decent teams on the schedule.

With the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA tournaments on the immediate horizon, it’s only going to get more intense. Even though Pitt coach Suzie McConnell-Serio wouldn’t go there after the 28-point spanking, word has to have gotten around the league about where the Irish might be vulnerable.

“The perception (around the league) is that they’re very good,” said McConnell-Serio, stating the obvious. “You have to respect every player on the floor. You can’t cheat off anyone. If you leave someone open… I watched the Louisville game. Taya Reimer had 8-for-8 from the floor.”

But, push ‘em around a little…

Winning at least a piece of the ACC regular-season crown for the second year in a row has been a grind. More narrow escapes than coach Muffet McGraw and her staff are used to. Repeating as the ACC Tournament champ could be monumental.

Since a discombobulated loss with a team in turmoil in Miami (when Reimer took her leave), Notre Dame has won 13 straight. Sunday’s game at North Carolina State is the last of the regular season.

If the Irish are due for a letdown, it could very well happen in the final of the ACC Tournament against Florida State. Notre Dame was fortunate to get a six-point win over the Seminoles at home on Jan. 2. Florida State will be hungry, and the Irish will be ripe.

But, even an upset shouldn’t impact Notre Dame’s plight in the NCAA Tournament significantly. The key for the Irish won’t be getting a No. 1 seed. It will be which regional No. 1 seed they are awarded. The goal will be staying away from UConn until the last possible moment.

As of today, Notre Dame boasts the No. 1 RPI in the country, a primary factor in the seeding process. Tennessee, an 11-point loser to the Irish, is No. 2.

All that should count for something.

Connecticut, which plays in the rec league cleverly disguised as the American Athletic Conference, is No. 5 in the RPI. That’s the blip in the radar that will change come NCAA Tournament time. Without a doubt, UConn will be the overall No. 1 seed. Even with a terrible league schedule, nobody in their right mind would think any differently.

Notre Dame, Tennessee, South Carolina and Baylor are all on that next layer of the women’s college basketball’s stratosphere. They don’t belong with UConn, but they’re better than the rest. Finding three regional top seeds out of that group of four will be a challenge for the selection committee.

McGraw said she and her staff are constantly self-scouting, trying to tweak and refine the Irish to a competitive level with the elite (and, maybe by early April, even UConn).

“We (self-scout) more than the opponents,” McGraw said. “We do that every day. We look at how we would guard us; what we would do to stop us.

“We’re able to see a lot. We always have something to fix when we go into practice.

“I am hyper-critical of what we’re doing as a staff. We’re always looking at, ‘How can we say it differently? What can we show them differently? How can we get them to see this?’

“With this young team, it’s been hard for us to see the things we want done right now; the sense of urgency. We keep taking steps back as a staff to be a bit more positive, and look at all the good things we’re doing.

“I just see the end. I want to play every team well enough to beat the best team on our schedule. We’re not quite there yet.”

In other words, to avoid clunkers.

Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd (32) drives to the basket as Pittsburgh’s Chelsea Welch (22) defends Thursday, February 26, 2015, during the Pittsburgh-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ