Time for Irish women to look beyond the box score

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Ho-hum, ‘nuther women’s basketball game, ‘nuther blowout.

Took Virginia Tech the better part of three quarters to break 20. Hokies better be the best defensive team in the ACC, because their offense is somewhere between an air ball and a shot clock violation.

Intimidation may have had something to do with how badly the Hokies performed.

“Sometimes, you get into the mindset, ‘I don’t know if we can beat them or compete with them,’” said Virginia Tech coach Dennis Wolff. “That gives (Notre Dame) a leg up at the start.”

The way it turned out, the Irish didn’t need anything up at the start.

Notre Dame’s 80-41 win over Virginia Teach Sunday was just another necessary, though uninspired, step toward the ultimate goal; a goal the Irish have been close enough to see and smell over the last five years, but never able to taste.

If they plan on ending five years of settling for the wedding party instead of actually tossing the bouquet, the Irish will need to be prepared to respond to each challenge over the next month and a half.

No room for off nights. The margin of error, at least with a few teams, might be smaller than the margin of victory.

Las Vegas ignores women’s college basketball for a reason. Upsets almost never happen. That premise adds more pressure to third-ranked Notre Dame.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, four quality opponents – Duke, Louisville, Miami and Florida State – are left on the Notre Dame schedule. The double-bye for the ACC Tournament is a gimme. Play up to potential and avoid significant injuries and the Irish should be rock solid.

That leaves the NCAA Tournament.

Sixty-four teams is still way too many on the women’s side. The Irish will play two teams at home that have no business being on the same floor and have absolutely no chance of winning.

Then comes the regional. Now that could get interesting. Logic says the Irish will be the No. 1 seed in Sioux Falls, S.D. Connecticut will hunker down in nearby Bridgeport. South Carolina will likely represent the SEC in Lexington, Ky., and either Baylor or Texas will stay close to home in Dallas. Notre Dame will make the long trip to Mount Rushmore, to what’s considered the West Regional.

Not much of a reward for what’s looking to be a great season, even for the diehard fans who would love to make the trip.

The only mitigating factor is that the Final Four will be played just down the road in Indianapolis April 3-5. Remember, the Irish do Bankers Life Fieldhouse well. In 2011, Notre Dame raised the roof by beating UConn in the semifinal. Visions of Skylar Diggins dancing on the press table chanting “This is our house!” are still vivid. Two days later, they were one player shy (Kayla McBride, who missed the second half of the season for academic reasons) of measuring up to Texas A&M athletically, losing 76-70.

That was a title that got away.

Maybe not this one. Who knows?

No matter how far women’s basketball believes it has evolved, there’s still a definite hierarchy in place. UConn is in its own stratosphere. Notre Dame, South Carolina, Baylor and/or Texas are on the next level. Then, there’s everyone else.

Though coach Muffet McGraw would cringe at the thought publicly, for the next 71 days, the Irish must have one eye on their next opponent, and one eye on Connecticut. Everything they do now – like getting seldom-used sophomore Mychal Johnson (who is one of the team’s better athletes) more minutes (20) and having her score nine points against the Hokies – is focused on improving the big picture for when it really matters.

Every game, even the blowouts, must show some tangible signs of chiseling a way into the realm of the best of the best.

It’s a challenge to look beyond the score.

Intimidation won't work against UConn.

Notre Dame forward Brianna Turner shoots over Virginia Tech’s Taijah Campbell during Sunday's game in South Bend.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN