Notre Dame women set for challenge at Virginia

Ken Klimek Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

Playing on the road in the Atlantic Coast Conference presents a myriad set of hurdles to overcome and roadblocks to avoid.

Another such possible pitfall for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team (13-1, 2-0 ACC) arrives Thursday night when the Irish invade the John Paul Arena for a conference matchup with Virginia.

The Cavaliers (11-4, 1-0) earlier in the week defeated a rugged Miami team by 20 points in their conference opener. The last time the Irish visited the Cavaliers, they posted a narrow seven-point victory in January, 2014.

"Every game is a tough one in this league,” said Irish coach Muffet McgGaw on Wednesday, prior to working with her players at a new program for St. Joseph County Special Olympians. “It’s especially tough on the road. We have to be ready.”

The Irish got a taste of a road challenge when they needed an 11-0 spurt in the fourth quarter to post their first league road victory of the year on Sunday at Pittsburgh. The defense was sound, but the offense was spotty.

That victory gave McGraw her 800th win as a Division I coach, putting her in some elite company. She is only the 10th coach to achieve that milestone and will be honored for that milestone Sunday prior to the Notre Dame game at home against North Carolina.

McGraw is just the fifth NCAA Division I coach in either men’s or women’s basketball history to amass 800 wins, seven NCAA Final Four berths, and five NCAA championship game appearances. The other four are women's coaches Geno Auriemma (Connecticut) and Pat Summitt (Tennessee), and men's coaches Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) and Dean Smith (North Carolina).

The difficult path Notre Dame has been on this season got a bit easier when 6-foot-3 post Brianna Turner returned from a right shoulder injury that forced her to miss six games.

“We learned how to play without Bri, now we are learning again how to play with her,” McGraw said. "But having her back is definitely a good thing.”

The Irish offense has sputtered at times this year with a range of different lineups, but the leadership of junior Lindsay Allen has helped.

“I need to be more aggressive early in the game and look for my shot more,” Allen said. “But it is also my job to get everyone involved in the offense and get them settled down.”

Allen, the team leader in assists at 5.4 a game, has indeed gotten everyone involved. Four Irish players average in double figures and two others add 9.6, including Allen.

“It’s weird to be one of the oldest players on the team and one of the captains,” Allen said. “I remember two years ago when we played (Virginia) when I was a freshman. They are tough at home. They are 8-1 there this year. It will be a tough game for us.”

McGraw is hoping the offense will be better prepared and more used to having Turner back in the lineup.

“We became a team of 3-point shooters without her,” McGraw said. “I still want us to shoot the 3, but we can now look inside more.”

Looking inside paid off well recently when Turner scored 20 points to lead the Irish against Pittsburgh.

“We are executing our defense,” Allen said. “The time together on the court is helping our offense. I am happy with how we are progressing and the freshmen are blending in well.”

The two freshmen, Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale are averaging 12.6 and 11.2 points respectively, and are a huge reason that Notre Dame’s bench is outscoring the opposition by 31.5-14.3. Veteran Madison Cable continues to lead the Irish in scoring at 16.0 points, with Turner at 13.4 and Kathryn Westbeld near double figures at 9.6. Turner and Ogunbowale are the team’s leading rebounders at 5.8.

“Allen sets the tone for us offensively and defensively,” said McGraw. “She has a lot of responsibility. We want her to do more early."

“Virginia is known for its defense. So this matchup will come down to who can make the most stops,” said Allen, who added that “they have three good guards we will have to watch.”

Notre Dame's Brianna Turner (11) handles the ball against Oregon State, Monday December 28, 2015, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame 13-1 (2-0) vs. Virginia 11-4 (1-0).

WHERE: Charlottesville, Va. John Paul Jones Arena (14,593).

WHEN: Thursday at 7 pm.

TV: Virginiasports/com (PPV-live).

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

GAME NOTES: Virginia has four players scoring in double figures. Mikayla Venson, a 5-foot-7 sophomore , leads the team at 14.9. Faith Randolph, a 5-10 senior, is next a t 13.9, while 6-2 sophomore Lauren Moses scores at an 11.2. Aliyah Huland El, a 6-1 sophomore, contributes 11.1 points a game. . . Moses is the team’s leading rebounder at 7.6 each game. . . Notre Dame continues to lead the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at .459. . . The Irish have won 50 of their last 52 regular-season road games. . . This is the fifth meeting between the two teams. Each has won twice.