Notre Dame women's basketball tries to cool Syracuse

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — The challenges the Notre Dame women’s basketball team admittedly enjoy just keep coming.

The Irish get another one Thursday at Purcell Pavilion when newly ranked Syracuse (No. 24) meets Notre Dame in an Atlantic Coast Conference matchup.

Syracuse is a team on the rise, a step behind Notre Dame in the ACC with its 14-4 (4-1) record, The Orange have been playing their best basketball of the season. They have won three straight and crushed then 12th-ranked Duke, 84-50, on Jan. 5.

Notre Dame is 17-1 (5-0) and, along with Louisville (6-0), are the only unbeaten teams remaining in ACC play.

“We like that, playing the toughest schedule we can,” ND coach Muffet McGraw has said. “It should get us better when tournament time comes along.

“Now we have to focus. The conference race is so close that every game is important,” McGraw said.

She gave her team most of the day off Tuesday, before practicing for Syracuse on Wednesday.

“Some rest is needed at this time of the season,” she added. “The season can be a grind.”

Syracuse is coached by Quentin Hillsman, and his work with the Orange has impressed McGraw.

“They are very good at pressing and their (zone) defense is outstanding,'' McGraw said. "They make like 15 steals a game.''

The Orange are second in the nation with steals at this point of the season, averaging 6.8 steals a game.

“We hope to be able to shoot the ball well against their zone,” she added. “Getting the ball up the floor (against the Syracuse press) will be a key.”

An up-tempo, fast-paced game is almost a sure thing. Both teams love to get up and go. Syracuse averages 73.9 points a game, not far behind the Irish, who score at an 82-point-per game pace.

The Joyce Center floor has been kind to the Irish, winning 80 of their last 83 games there. And this year it has been the incredible offensive balance and depth that has served them well.

It will take more of the same to take care of Syracuse.

“He (Syracuse coach Hillsman) has done a really fantastic job, especially recruiting,” McGraw said. “He has gotten great players. Brianna Butler (13.3 points a game) and Brittney Sykes (8.9 points, 5.7 rebounds) are two of the best to come through. They will only continue to get better.”

Alexis Peterson leads the Orange in scoring at 14.3 points, but Butler is the nation’s active career leader in 3-point baskets with 304. “Butler will be a tough matchup for us,” said McGraw. “We have to know where she is all the time. It will take a lot of awareness from our team.”

The same goes for Syracuse. They will have to be aware of Notre Dame’s multi-player arsenal, led by Madison Cable at 14.4 points a game. When defenses focus on Cable, it opens up the inside for sophomore Brianna Turner, who scores at a 13.3 clip and leads the team in blocked shots and rebounds at 7.1 a game.

With four double-figure scorers, it is hard for teams to double up on any Irish individual.

Freshmen Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale are at 12.9 and 11.4 respectively.

“They are just instant offense,” said McGraw. “They are fearless. They are going to take the ball to the basket and get their shots. Arike benefits from the attention given to Maddie (Cable).”

“Against Syracuse we just have to play our game and can't let up defensively,” she said.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw waves to fans as she celebrates 800 career wins before an NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame 17-1 (5-0) vs. No. 24 Syracuse 14-4 (4-1)

WHEN: Thursday at 7 pm (EST)

WHERE: Joyce Center at Purcell Pavilion

TICKETS: Limited number available Available by calling (574) 631-7356, going online to UND.com/buytickets

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

INTERNET: ESPN3

GAME NOTES

Lindsay Allen will be starting her 96th consecutive game for Notre Dame. She is one away from tying the Irish record of 97 set by Jacqueline Batteast, who played her high school basketball at South Bend Washington. ... Syracuse Coach Quentin Hillsman is in his 10th season with the Orange ... Syracuse has made three consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament. ... Notre Dame has appeared in 22 NCAA tournaments, including the last 20 in a row ... Notre Dame’s bench players continue to outscore their opponents' bench players by 18 points a game ... Notre Dame’s Michaela Mabrey is friends with Syracuse’s Brittany Sykes, a redshirt junior. Those two, along with Syracuse senior Brianna Butler were on the East team at the 2012 McDonald’s High School All-America Game played at the United Center in Chicago. Their team defeated the West, 79-78.