Tennessee should test Notre Dame women's basketball

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — There will be danger lurking at Notre Dame Monday night. 

The Notre Dame women’s basketball team is aware of it, knowing that visiting Tennessee can be as dangerous as any opponent it meets this season. The Lady Volunteers have struggled a bit (11-5) but remain ranked 13th in the nation.

Another tough opponent for the Irish, cited for having the country’s toughest schedule. Tennessee will be the sixth ND opponent currently ranked or ranked at one time during the season. Their only loss was the 10-point defeat at No. 1 Connecticut, when the Irish played without standout post player Brianna Turner. 

“Tennessee has big-time talent at multiple positions,” said ESPN veteran analyst Doris Burke, who will be working Monday’s game for ESPN2 as part of its Big Monday telecast. 

One of Tennessee’s dominant players is Diamond DeShields, the team’s leading scorer at 15.3 points a game. She was on many freshman of the year award lists two seasons ago at North Carolina before transferring to Tennessee.

But the Volunteers of Coach Holly Warlick have other weapons. Bashara Graves, a 6-foot-2 sophomore who averages 10.8 points, scored 22 in last season’s 88-77 Irish victory. And 6-6 sophomore Mercedes Russell (11.1) is an inside force.

Coach Muffet McGraw’s team has been playing its best basketball of the season recently, boosting its record to 16-1. The Irish are 5-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. This non-conference game with Tennessee will be the first of three Big Monday appearances for Notre Dame on ESPN.

The return of Brianna Turner, who missed six games with a shoulder injury, has been a key factor in the Notre Dame recent run.

“We almost shut her down,” said McGraw, remembering that Turner’s season almost was ended with the injury. “We talked after the Pittsburgh game (with Turner and her family) but she always wanted to play.''

She is nearly back to full strength now and is averaging 13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds.

“She really plays without pain now,” said McGraw. “I am sure there is still a bit of the mental aspect of her injury — when she remembers how painful it was.”

Turner has plenty of help. 

One of Notre Dame’s strengths is its balance. Four players, including Turner, average in double figures with grad student Madison Cable leading the way at 14.7 points a game. Freshmen Marina Mabrey is at 12.9 and Arike Ogunbowale at 11.2

Sophomore Kathrynn Westbeld, who has played the 4 or 5 position depending on Turner’s presence scores at a 9.3 clip and adds 5.8 rebounds a game. And veteran Lindsay Allen, a junior is at 9.2 and leads Notre Dame in assists with 5.4 a game.

“Notre Dame is consistently one of the best defensive teams in the country,” said Burke. “If I was a coach I would want to play Notre Dame. They will expose your weaknesses. Muffet’s defense will force you to have to put points on the board.” 

Though the Irish defense has been praised, its offense is well-noted also. Through Saturday Notre Dame led the nation in 3-point shooting percent at .449.

“Notre Dame’s program has risen to the point that regardless of injury, loss of players, graduation and other reasons they will continue to be successful,'' Burke said. "They have developed a very competitive and confident edge about themselves.” 

Burke sees Tennessee as a team in transition.

“It is not easy for Holly (Tennessee coach Warlick) to replace her mentor (Pat Summitt). Tennessee has a remarkable history. It’s standards are so high. The weight on the kids shoulders must be worse than it actually is.”

It will be a busy week at home for the Irish, who are looking for their 10th straight victory. After the Monday test against Tennessee, Notre Dame stays home to face Syracuse on Thursday night and then Virginia Tech on Sunday.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) shoots over Tennessee’s Bashaara Graves (12) Monday, January 19, 2015, during the Tennessee-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame 16-1 (5-0) vs. No. 13 Tennessee 11-5 (2-2 in SEC)

WHEN: Monday at 7 pm (EST)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion

TICKETS: Limited number available by calling (574) 631-7356, going online to UND.com/buytickets or visiting the Gate 9 ticket windows Monday.

TV: ESPN 2

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

GAME NOTES:

Tennessee won the first 20 games of the series, but Notre Dame has won the last five  .. . Coach Holly Warlick is 97-25 in her fourth year as head coach. ... Warlick played at Tennessee from 1976 to 1980 and was on Pat Summitt’s staff from 1985 to 2012 when she was named head coach. She has been a part of eight NCAA championships and 16 trips to the Final Four ... Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen has started 94 consecutive games. The Irish record is 97 held by former South Bend Washington High School’s Jacqueline Batteast.