Do the math: Can Notre Dame women's basketball overtake UConn?

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Not much has changed in women’s college basketball since this time last year.

Bracket-busters in the NCAA Tournament are few and far between.

Connecticut is in a stratosphere of its own, once again; a 10, let’s call it. Notre Dame is knocking on the door, but not quite there yet. Give the Irish an 8 on this very unscientific rating scale.

Then, there’s everyone else – a few 6.5s that could be a 7 on the right night. And a whole bunch of also-rans who don’t merit a spot on that scale.

The challenge for the Irish over the course of the next three weeks is two-fold: Try to bridge the gap between 8 and 10, while not playing down to a 6.5 to court an upset.

In reality, Notre Dame is a team built for next year. The Irish, who have six McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster now, will have everyone back and will add three McDonald’s All-Americans next season.

But, why not start the run to overtake UConn now?

Notre Dame took a significant step in the right direction in Greensboro almost two weeks ago with a quality performance over a Florida State team hungry to crack into the elite.

Bottle the effort. Remember the fundamentals. Access the attitude.

What they did in its Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship game win over the Seminoles could carry the Irish a long way in the NCAA Tournament.

That is…

No time for steps backward now. Notre Dame is now faced with six one-game seasons starting Friday night at home against Montana, deemed the 63rd-worst team in the 64-team climax.

But still, the margin for error has been significantly diminished. Even a team that has four straight Final Four notches in its belt isn’t immune to the pressure that makes tournament time special.

There’s no getting around the fact that what the Irish did against Florida State was special. If there was an opportunity for an upset, that was it. All the more reason to dial up the intensity.

The Seminoles hadn’t been outrebounded all season – until Notre Dame dominated the glass, 39-27. While the Irish shot 52 percent (31 of 60) from the field, Florida State was limited to 37 percent (21 of 57). Notre Dame’s 71-58 win was a cakewalk, compared to its six-point escape from the Seminoles earlier in the season.

There were no letdowns. The posts were lights out. Role players like point guard Lindsay Allen and Ms. Everything Madison Cable made impacts, and Jewell Loyd was … Jewell Loyd.

“It’s March Madness,” said Irish assistant coach Carol Owens, in charge of the post play. “It’s focus. In the month of March is when we really start coming together.

“It’s maturation. I remember back when I coached Ruth Riley. Inconsistent. Foul trouble. Then, it started coming along in March. I understand the process.

“We’re talking about a freshman (Brianna Turner) and a sophomore (Taya Reimer) taking over a position that was occupied by veterans (last year, Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker). I’m really proud of them being able to step up.”

Allen has battled a roller coaster in terms of performance. Niele Ivey, head coach Muffet McGraw’s lieutenant in charge of the point, said expectations changed mid-stream.

“Early in the season, we needed (Allen’s) scoring (15 times in double figures this year),” Ivey said. “Defense is something she really focused on after Christmas. (McGraw) always challenges her. We talk about getting better fundamentally; being better fundamentally setting screens.

“She’s a complete player. She’s so heads up; so smart.”

As well as the Irish played against Florida State, last weekend’s film session – which came after a five-day break – was an eye-opener.

“We still have a lot of room for improvement, but we have a lot of momentum right now,” said Beth Cunningham, the Irish assistant in charge of the perimeter players. “We want to be peaking at the right time.

“It’s funny, right after the game, all you think about is how well we played. Then, you watch the film and you start picking it apart. We were very critical. We came back down to reality.”

“There’s areas where we can get better: Rebounding, screens; that’s just a coach never being satisfied, but there are still areas where we can improve,” Ivey said. “(The players) thought they were done with that game. We came back and showed them areas where they could be better; (we were) very critical. (McGraw) has a great attention to detail. We’re never satisfied. We can be satisfied later.”

When that 8 finally overtakes 10.

Notre Dame's Michaela Mabrey (23) directs a play against Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis(23) Saturday, December 6, 2014, during the Connecticut-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)