'Average' is still pretty good for Notre Dame women's basketball

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Nobody in the women’s college basketball world is going to feel sorry for Notre Dame.

Down two five-star, big-time posts because of injury. A little disheveled thanks to an identity crisis. Vulnerable in areas that haven’t been concerns in … heck, forever.

Now, all of a sudden, the Irish are a lot more “average” than ... heck, forever.

“Average” is still pretty good when it’s “Notre Dame average.” It was good enough Wednesday night to knock off No. 10 Ohio State, 75-72, but it was the kind of effort that was hardly distinctive for the No. 3-ranked team in the land.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw was supposed to clear up the murkiness surrounding the injuries to 6-foot-4 junior Taya Reimer (Achilles) and 6-3 sophomore Brianna Turner (right shoulder).

Questions still linger. 

Neither was available for Wednesday’s game. McGraw said Reimer has been cleared to play, but will judge her involvement on the pain she’s able to withstand on a game-to-game basis. McGraw said Turner, who was injured in practice last Tuesday before the Irish left for their tournament in the Bahamas, still needed to make a decision whether to have season-ending surgery now or play in a brace. That announcement could come Thursday.

Regardless, the situation facing McGraw and her staff is staggering. They must re-invent a team that has learned how to revolve an offense around a post presence.

The struggles were never so obvious as they were in the third quarter when, at one point, Notre Dame’s half-court offense generated just one basket in 14 tries. Lindsay Allen, who scored 20 points, had to hit a last-second shot in order for the Irish to score 10 points in that 10-minute stretch. Fortunately for the Irish, Ohio State had troubles of its own and scored just 14, allowing Notre Dame to lead by one heading into the money quarter.

Transition was the most effective way for Notre Dame to score.

“It was hard for us today because we played four guards a lot and we haven’t had enough time to work it out,” McGraw said. “We had two games in the Bahamas. We haven’t had enough time to practice it. It’s going to look ugly for a while.

“Overall, we’ve got a lot of work to do on offense.”

Not exactly a comforting feeling heading into a trip to Connecticut on Saturday.

There were bright spots. The Buckeyes, who lost to UConn by 44 at home earlier this season, had a 19-18 rebounding edge at halftime. Notre Dame finished the game with a 45-34 control of the boards.

While talking rebounds, 5-10 Madison Cable had 11 and 5-9 Hannah Huffman had nine, seven of which came on the offensive glass.

The Mabrey sisters, Michaela and Marina, combined to come up empty on all eight 3-pointers they tried. When long range shooting is their specialty, that’s a problem. Heading into this game, the Irish shot 45 percent on 3-pointers. Against the Buckeyes, it was 29 percent (7 of 24). Defenses don’t have to sag inside without Turner and Reimer. They can pay closer attention to the perimeter.

Allen, the only pure offensive threat in the lineup now, struggled with her floor game by committing eight turnovers. Ohio State’s full-court pressure rattled the Irish.

Defensively, the Irish – pre-injuries – would be able to funnel the ball to the middle, then dare anyone in the lane to try to shoot over Turner’s long arms. That funnel is no longer effective.

Without the post presence, this may be a very different – but hardly disastrous – season for Irish fans to endure. There may be some losses that wouldn’t necessarily happen. Maybe there won’t be a No. 1 seed come late March. Anyone who has taken five straight Final Four appearances for granted may have a startling awakening.

McGraw’s not fretting over all that.

Her glass is half-full.

“This is one of the biggest weeks of the season for us,” McGraw said. “To beat UCLA and Ohio State without our post players, it really bodes well for this team.

“They’re fighters. They’re relentless. They just keep coming at you. We got down one (with 2:11 left in the game), they didn’t bat an eye. They just came back down and scored.

“The attitude of this group is amazing… It’s been kind of a fun puzzle to put together.”

Even without the two biggest pieces.

Photos of Notre Dame's victory: http://goo.gl/C4wKKh

Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen (15) listens to instructions from Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw Wednesday, December 2, 2015, during the Ohio State-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ