Balance fuels Notre Dame women's basketball team

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — There will be a little time for warm, shimmering waters and balmy temperatures.

Then there is some serious work to do.

That is the situation the Notre Dame women’s basketball team faces as it spends the Thanksgiving weekend in Freeport, Bahamas.

“It is a treat for the players,'' said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "The season is a long grind and it will be nice break after all the work they have done this fall.”

The Irish hard work has paid off with a 4-0 record and a No. 3 national ranking as they face Denver Saturday at 3:15 in the opening round of the four-team Junkanoo Jam tourney in the Bahamas.

The Notre Dame women were to have some free time for swimsuits and flip flops Thursday, but the trip will not be all about free time. It was back to work Friday for the meeting with Denver, 1-2, on Saturday.

“We will find out a lot about ourselves soon,” said McGraw. She was referring to a stretch of games immediately ahead.

Should the favored Irish defeat Denver, UCLA, who meets Louisiana Tech in the other first-round game is the likely next opponent. The Bruins pushed No. 2-ranked South Carolina to the brink before losing by three points earlier in the week.

“UCLA is really an athletic team,” McGraw said. “Last year they killed us on the boards. They would be a really good test for us to see where we are.”

Following this weekend tournament, Notre Dame meets No. 11 Ohio State at home on Wednesday, before visiting top-ranked nemesis Connecticut at Storrs, Conn., next weekend. Connecticut, of course, is the team that has beaten Notre Dame in the last two NCAA championship games.

But Denver is the immediate task at hand.

“Denver is not as athletic as UCLA. They are more of a discipline team,” McGraw said.

That is where the Notre Dame defense comes into play. The Irish running game often is fueled by its defense, forcing steals and turnovers that lead to a rash of fast-break points. That defense has been a mainstay for Notre Dame in the early season, allowing opponents only a .318 shooting percentage.

Offensively, the Irish show incredible balance with five players averaging in double figures. Sophomore center Brianna Turner leads the way with a 14.3 scoring average. Turner also leads the team with 3.8 blocks per game. Madison Cable is scoring at a 13.8 clip, followed closely by Kathryn Westbeld (12.0), and freshmen Marina Mabrey (10.3) and Arike Ogunbowale (10.0).

“We are going to be like that (very balanced),” said McGraw. "The last four Final Fours, before last year, we were very balanced. Sometimes it was Skylar (Diggins), sometimes (Kayla) McBride, sometimes Natalie (Achonya),” said McGraw.

McGraw has been pleased with the work of Cable.

“They don’t want to leave her alone at the 3-point line,'' McGraw said. "She doesn’t get the attention she deserves. Madison is making that next step. She was a complimentary player the last three years. Now she is a featured player. She has not been in that role before. She has done a remarkable job in the transformation.''

Westbeld, starting all four games, fueled the Irish fast start in Monday’s victory over Valparaiso, scoring nine points in just more than the game’s first three minutes. She is starting in place of Taya Reimer, still nursing a tender Achilles. Reimer has averaged 7.7 points in limited minutes.

“Kat (Westbeld) is absolutely under the radar right now. She is great against the press, good inside, and doing everything well,” McGraw added.

The two freshmen, Marina Mabrey and Ogunbowale have also helped the Irish.

“Marina had those 12 steals last game, but she also passed the ball really well and had 10 assists. As far as running the team, that will take some time,” McGraw said.

And Notre Dame has an excellent point guard in Lindsay Allen. The junior leads the team with 23 assists, despite getting plenty of time off the court during the one-sided first four games.

“The big thing we want now from the freshmen is consistency,” said McGraw. “Will they rebound, defend?

Senior Michaela Mabrey is helping the Irish focus on getting the ball inside, and not necessarily looking to score.

“We want to focus on going inside and I think Michaela is doing just that. She is able to help other people get free. Plus they are keeping people on her, limiting her shots.”

After that brief respite in the sun, the next week will go a long way toward identifying the kind of team Notre Dame is the rest of this season.

Madison Cable leads Notre Dame in scoring.SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (3-0) vs. Denver (1-2), at St. Georges High School, Freeport, Bahamas

WHEN: Friday at 3:15 pm (EST)

TV: None

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) South Bend, WatchND (audio only)

GAME NOTES: Denver is coached by Kerry Cremeans. She is in her fourth year with a record of 31-63. ... Denver’s last game was a 57-48 victory over Air Force. ... Paige Bradley, a 5-foot-9 senior is the team’s leading scorer at 10.7 points per game. ... The leading rebounder is Jesse Spittel, a 6-2 junior forward, at 7.3 rebounds a game. ... Creamens was an assistant coach at Purdue in 2000-01 when Notre Dame won the national championship by defeating the Boilermakers, 68-66.