Does Notre Dame have the size to win it all?
SOUTH BEND – Walking away from last year’s 21-point national championship loss to Connecticut, the mandate for Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw was obvious.
The Irish needed size.
The Huskies’ twin towers of 6-foot-4 Breanna Stewart (21 points, nine rebounds against the Irish) and 6-5 Stefanie Dolson (17 points, 16 rebounds) were impossible for Notre Dame to handle.
Of course, it also was an injury-depleted Irish team, lacking the inside leadership of Natalie Achonwa, who sustained a knee injury in the Elite Eight.
Enter freshmen Brianna Turner (6-3) and Kathryn Westbeld (6-2). Along with 6-3 sophomore Taya Reimer, they are the answer to that mandate and the Irish future down low.
Are they good enough to solve the shortcoming in just one year?
Does this Notre Dame team have what it takes to unseat UConn on the women’s basketball throne?
After the season they’ve had to this point, it’s hard to find a lot of fault with the Irish. But before sizing up Connecticut, with Stewart (17.6 points, 7.6 rebounds), 6-2 Morgan Tuck (14.2, 5.5), and 6-3 Kiah Stokes (4.5, 6.7), South Carolina is looming in Sunday’s semifinal.
Definitely a stern challenge.
The Gamecocks have three talented post players. There’s 6-5 freshman A’Ja Wilson, who comes off the bench to average 12.9 points and 6.5 boards. Alaina Carter, 6-4, (11.1, 7.9) and 6-3 Elem Ibiam (6.3, 3.8) are also factors.
Turner (13.7, 7.8), Reimer (10.1, 6.0) and Westbeld (6.9, 4.5) will have to be on top of their game in order to get a shot at the title.
Whether it’s a concern or something working in Notre Dame’s favor, the Irish really haven’t put a solid game together since beating Florida State for the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship.
After finding a way to cover up the flaws and still get four victories, they should be due for a good one.
Sunday night’s nine-point win over Baylor was far from a masterpiece. Notre Dame had 11 turnovers, missed 12 free throws (eight in the second half) and Jewell Loyd hit on just 5-of-18 shots.
While shooting just 47 percent from the field, the Irish managed to outrebound the Bears, 43-38. Turner and Reimer combined for 21 points and 18 boards to beat a Baylor team that deserved to be within a game of the Final Four.
Loyd, Lindsay Allen, Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable are who they are. Any of them has the capacity to take over a game in the space of a few minutes.
But that’s just flash.
If the Irish bigs can’t stand their ground against South Carolina, Notre Dame won’t earn the opportunity to test its mettle against UConn, which meets Maryland in the semifinal and should cruise to the title game.
Notre Dame’s 18-point loss to the Huskies on Dec. 6 happened with Turner sitting on the bench, nursing a right shoulder injury from the Maryland game. The only reminders left are a brace she has worn all season and Turner’s occasional hesitance to mix it up on the deck (which was how she was injured).
Turner and Reimer have to get into the flow from the opening tip. Stay out of foul trouble. Block or alter a few shots right away, just to give the Gamecocks something to think about.
Then, Westbeld has to make an impact off the bench. Her stat line against Baylor was goose eggs, except for a missed shot, foul and turnover. That has to get better.
Time for the Irish to deliver on the mandate.
And prove they’re big enough to win it.
WHAT: National semifinal
WHO: Notre Dame (35-2) vs. South Carolina (34-2)
WHEN: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. (EDT)
WHERE: Amalie Arena, Tampa Fla.