South Carolina next hurdle for Notre Dame women to clear

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

TAMPA, Fla. - Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw and her South Carolina counterpart Dawn Staley have mutual admiration for each other and each other's basketball teams.

As they learned playing as point guards in Philadelphia, both McGraw and Staley are tough-minded but with similar philosophies - strong defenses, offenses that like to run the floor. They also like winning as much as the third coach here in the Women's Final Four with Philly ties - Geno Auriemma, whose Connecticut Huskies will be seeking his 10th national title.

All those similarities - including lopsided losses to Connecticut (Notre Dame's 76-58 on Dec. 6 in South Bend and South Carolina's 87-62 on Feb. 9 in Storrs, Conn.) - and The City of Brotherly Love connections will be put on hold Sunday evening at 6:30 when McGraw's second-ranked Irish, 35-2 and winners of 21 straight, meet Staley's third-ranked Gamecocks, 34-2 and winners of 12 of their last 13.

The winner receives a berth into Tuesday night's championship game against either Auriemma's top-ranked Connecticut or No. 4 Maryland, who battle at 9 in the other semifinal at Amalie Arena, the 21,000-seat home of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning that is just off the Channelside waters.

"I have a lot of concerns about South Carolina," McGraw said Saturday before sending her team out for the first workout by the four teams. "They're such a good team and their depth is just probably the best in the game. Actually, I think they have the most depth of any team here."

Staley, too, is impressed with Notre Dame's depth of talent, especially in its starting five.

"What I like about them is they play basketball with all five players," Staley said. "Everybody has a role and everybody plays their role, and everybody makes an impact, especially from the offensive standpoint where you can't lay off of anybody. They make you guard five players on the floor, and when you're able to utilize the people who don't have the ball, it looks pretty special and beautiful."

The similarities about Notre Dame and South Carolina are more than just their ex-point-guard coaches and their junior All-Americans - Jewell Loyd of the Irish (19.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game) and Tiffany Mitchell of the Gamecocks (14.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists).

Notre Dame's main concern, of course, is trying to neutralize a team that used its frontcourt depth to tie for the regular season Southeastern Conference title (with Kentucky), win the SEC Tournament (over Tennessee) before winning four straight to capture the Greensboro (N.C.) Regional, including the last three over Notre Dame's colleagues from the Atlantic Coast Conference - Syracuse, North Carolina and Florida State - to get here.

"They have great post players on the bench and in the starting lineup," McGraw said. "You can't even think about we'll have to get them in foul trouble or maybe we can do this or that because the people they're bringing in are as good or better than the ones who are starting. I think they present a lot of trouble for us at both ends of the floor."

South Carolina's two frontcourt starters - 6-foot-4 senior center Elem Ibiam (6.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 0.9 blocks per game) and 6-0 senior forward Aleighsa Welch (9.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.1 blocks) - would be enough to give Notre Dame's young frontliners - sophomore Taya Reimer and freshmen Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld - fits. But there's also 6-foot-5 freshman A'ja Wilson (12.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.7 blocks) and 6-4 sophomore center Alaina Coates (11.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks) to be concerned about.

"(Coates) just got a big body," McGraw said. "We haven't seen a post player with her size and ability all season long."

The Notre Dame concerns for Staley, who played in three Final Fours as a point guard at Virginia in the early 1990s and then went on to fame internationally and professionally before getting her coaching career started at Temple, are many as well. They include the 6-3 Turner (13.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks) and 6-3 Reimer (11.3 points, 58-percent shooting in last 10 games) plus sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen, who averaged 25.5 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game in the Oklahoma City, and guards Michaela Mabrey, who hit 5-for-5 from beyond the 3-point line in Notre Dame's 77-68 championship victory over Baylor, and Madison Cable.

But ultimately, it could be how well the Irish or Gamecocks guard the other team's All-American - Loyd or Mitchell - who will likely guard each other at the start.

"It's funny, we were talking, she (Mitchell) and Jewell are so similar in that they both guard the other team's best player," McGraw said. "We ask so much of Jewell and I'm sure they do of Tiffany as well. I think to have the best player be the best defender, it just says a lot for Tiffany and her mindset."

Staley has the same appreciation for Loyd.

"I think what you have to do with a player like Loyd is to make her work," Staley said. "We can't allow her to just get easy buckets, everything that she gets she has to work for and I think our players are up to that challenge. She's very good player who can create her own shot in a lot of different ways. So we have to be as patient and disciplined as Notre Dame is on offense with our defense."

Sadly, only one of them will play for the national championship.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw speaks during a practice session for the NCAA Final Four tournament women's college basketball semifinal game, Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. Notre Dame will play South Carolina Saturday in a semifinal game. (AP Photo/John Raoux)