Notre Dame women's basketball pushing for consistency

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Playing a bit unsteady at home in recent games, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team will be looking to polish and perfect its game this week with two Atlantic Coast Conference road games.

The first is Sunday at 3 p.m. at Pittsburgh and the second Thursday at Virginia.

The Irish know the value of road victories in conference play, and their record on the road is nearly unblemished of late. Coach Muffet McGraw’s team has won 49 of its last 51 regular-season road games, suffering only one defeat each of the last two years away from home. The Irish lost last year at Miami and two seasons ago at Connecticut.

It is that kind of consistency — at home or on the road — that has kept Notre Dame in the national rankings for 163 consecutive weeks, including the last 93 in the nation’s Top 10.

Speaking of numbers, the game could provide another milestone for McGraw. Her next victory will be No. 800 as a Division 1 coach. She would be the 10th coach to reach that plateau and the 7th active coach with that many victories.

Solid at 12-1 (1-0 in the league) Notre Dame will be a major test for the Panthers, 8-5, who are playing their first ACC game of the season.

But McGraw has bemoaned her team’s lethargic start in recent games. So a point of interest will be to look at how the Irish attack early.

“It’s important for us to be ready for every game,” McGraw said after Wednesday’s victory over Georgia Tech. “We know we can play better.”

Notre Dame also has squandered big leads before ultimately winning against DePaul, Oregon State and Georgia Tech.

But the Irish balance is hard to overcome. Grad student Madison Cable is the team’s leading scorer at 16.0 points a game. It will be a homecoming for Cable, who played her high school ball in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon.

Marina Mabrey adds 13.2 points a game for Notre Dame, with Brianna Turner at 12.4 (5.7 rebounds). Arike Ogunbowale averages 11.4 points, Kathryn Westbeld 10.0 and Lindsay Allen 9.9. Four for the top five Irish scorers are freshmen (Ogunbowale and Mabrey) or sophomores (Turner and Westbeld).

Pitt, meanwhile, is an even younger ballclub. There are six freshmen on the Pitt roster and zero seniors. The top four scorers for the Panthers are all freshmen and sophomores. First-year player Kalista Waters (6-foot) averages 12.8 and classmate Brenna Wise (also 6-foot) adds 9.2, along with a team-leading 7.3 rebounds. Sophomores Yacine Diop and Stasha Carey are at 10.5 and 9.3 respectively.

Pittsburgh is coached by Suzie McConnell-Serio, who holds a 39-37 record in her third season at the helm of the Panthers. She coached six years at Duquesne before switching to Pittsburgh.

An offensive identity has emerged and McGraw is excited by the balance.

“This is the kind of team we are,” she said. “Different people will pick us up at different times.”

One statistic that proves that point is a look at the Irish bench scoring. Notre Dame’s non-starters average 32.8 points a game, compared to only 15.4 for its collective opponents.

And one big boost the Irish received recently is the return to full-time duty of Turner, the 6-3 sophomore shot-blocker, who adds another dimension to the Irish four-guard offense. Turner’s inside presence and the attention she draws from other defenses helps open up the arc for Notre Dame’s rash of talented 3-point shooters.

Through Friday, Notre Dame continued to lead the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at .467.

Notre Dame's Madison Cable (22) looks to put up a short jumper against Oregon State's Samantha Siegner (5) during the first half Monday December 28, 2015, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ BECKY MALEWITZ

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame 12-1 (1-0) vs. Pittsburgh 8-5 (0-0).

WHERE: Petersen Events Center

WHEN: Sunday at 3 pm.

ONLINE: ESPN 3 and WatchND.tv

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) in South Bend and at Watch ND

GAME NOTES: Pittsburgh coach Suzie McConnell-Serio played basketball at Penn State, where she still holds the NCAA career assist record of 1,307 ... She played in the WNBA with the Minnesota Lynx in 1999 and 2000 and was the Lynx coach from 2003 to 2005. ... McConnell-Serio was a gold medalist with the USA team that won at Seoul in 1988. ... Notre Dame leads the all-time series, winning 23 of 26 meetings. ... The Irish beat the Panthers, 87-59, last year at Purcell Pavilion. ... This is the fifth straight year Notre Dame has opened the season with a 12-1 record.