New signs of hope amid concerns for ND women's hoops

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Street ball can have its quirks.

And, man, there was a lot of runnin’ and gunnin’ goin’ on Wednesday night.

The Notre Dame women’s basketball team’s 95-90 survival of DePaul left coach Muffet McGraw with a scowl on her face and a list of problems that have to get right in a hurry.

While concerns like defensive inconsistencies, rendering 12 rebounds on the offensive glass, and 12 of 22 free throw shooting, likely caused McGraw to feel a little sleep deprived Thursday morning, it was a win and a step in the right direction.

Sorta.

“It’s a win over a ranked team,” McGraw said. DePaul entered the game No. 18 in the country.

“We learned a lot,” McGraw said. “We played well in the first half. We can watch film of the second half and figure out how we get better from here.”

Don’t put too much stock in that 65-39 Irish halftime lead. It was more a case of an experiment by DePaul coach Doug Bruno than an overwhelming performance by Notre Dame.

Well, yeah, it was kinda overwhelming. At one point, midway through the second quarter, the Irish had hit 22 of 27 shots. But, it was a contrived opportunity.

Bruno called it “scatterball.” He said he wanted to see how it played on the road. Looking up at a 26-point deficit, he had his answer.

This was an experiment for the big picture; the success of women’s college basketball in a major professional sports market like Chicago.

Bruno’s theory is: To attract fans, point production is imperative.

Notre Dame had 8,207 fans watch Wednesday’s game. The top home crowd for the Blue Demons, at a 16-point loss to No. 1 Connecticut, was 4,001. Twice in seven home dates they’ve been under 2,000.

Bruno thought this run 'em ragged style of play might be able to peddle a couple more tickets.

There’s something to be said for at least a little defense, though. Either protect the perimeter or the inside. DePaul did neither. The Irish had a free pass for both, and took advantage liberally.

About the same time DePaul decided to ditch the experiment and play by the book, Notre Dame was starting to look gassed. The lead melted away like snow in April — or May, sometimes in South Bend.

It got a bit dicey for the Irish, which irked McGraw.

Sophomore post Kathryn Westbeld, sent to the bench early with first half foul trouble, remained there for a major chunk of the second after defensive lapses. Offense that came so easily before was now a labor. Free throws clanked. And DePaul didn’t miss.

The Blue Demons hit 9 of 13 second-half 3-pointers and all 10 free throws.

Maybe scoring points — and playing at least a semblance of defense — would prove Bruno’s experiment a success.

There were plenty of tense moments, but the Irish lead never slipped below five.

The most encouraging moment for Notre Dame fans may have gone virtually unnoticed. As the clock ticked down through the final seconds and DePaul was frantically trying to cut it to a one-possession game, Taya Reimer elevated to tap a missed shot away from the Blue Demons and to a teammate.

Reimer, a 6-foot-4 junior post who hasn’t played since the win over UCLA on Thanksgiving weekend because of a nagging Achilles problem, had been flat-footed through most of her 16 minutes. This time instincts overcame the pain and she leaped to make a big play.

At least something on which to build.

Add with that sophomore Brianna Turner, who was out of the sling for her right shoulder injury and making progress in her rehab, according to McGraw, and there may be hope on the horizon.

Street ball success can only go so far.

Notre Dame’s Hannah Huffman (24) goes in for a layup between DePaul’s Megan Podkowa (30) and Jessica January (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)