Notre Dame women hoops leans on emerging guard Mychal Johnson

Ken Klimek Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — There is little doubt the February women’s basketball schedule is looking tough.

But the final game of January may be no picnic for Notre Dame.

The Irish, 19-1 (7-0) travel to Atlanta to meet Georgia Tech on Thursday, before they can look ahead to February and some matchups with ranked teams on the road.

The Irish “only” defeated the Yellow Jackets at Purcell Pavilion, 85-76, on Dec. 30. That was a game that left head coach Muffet McGraw unhappy. The Irish had a 23-point lead in the third quarter before letting Georgia Tech, 12-8 (2-5) back in the game.

“Our defense was awful,” McGraw said after that contest.

But the recent defensive improvement and increased playing time for 5-foot-7 sophomore Mychal Johnson may prove a benefit.

“We base our rotation on need,” said McGraw. “Mychal gives us an opportunity to have someone other than Lindsay (Allen) guard a quick point. It’s a key spot. She gives us that ability. It’s the number one thing we need from her.”

Johnson’s energy off the bench enables Allen to guard a wing, instead of chasing a point guard all over the floor.

Happy with extended playing time recently, Johnson's confidence is climbing.

“My teammates also say they have confidence in me, so I decided to have more confidence in myself,” said Johnson, who grabbed eight rebounds two games ago and scored nine points in her last outing.

“It helps when you start making shots,” she said. “The confidence grows. But I take pride in my defense and I guess any quickness I have really helps.”

“She has gotten more reps, and is playing well,'' said Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey. "She is eager to learn and work hard.”

Johnson was slowed last season with a knee injury, but said, “It’s 100 percent now. I can go.

“I will want to get up and pressure anyone I guard. In my mind I want to get a steal. That gets me going.”

Johnson credits Ivey with her development.

“I can go to her with anything,'' she said. "She has been building me up. In the summer when I had to sit because of my knee, she would go over film with me and point out things I need to know. Coach McGraw and the other coaches here are great. It is not all basketball. They prepare you for life after basketball, too.”

Johnson’s legs will be needed to slow diminutive (5-foot-5), but lightning-quick freshman guard Ciana Cryor, who raced around and through the Irish the first time they met, and scored 19 points. Tech is a quick and athletic team coached by former Purdue star Machelle Joseph.

“The extended opportunity has helped her,” McGraw said of Johnson. “But she played well early in the year in critical spots — like against DePaul and Ohio State.” Both of those games were closely contested and Johnson’s defensive play helped.''

Notre Dame has been cruising recently, entering Thursday’s matchup with 12 straight victories and carrying an 82.3 point-per-game scoring average – best in the Atlantic Coast Conference. And with sophomore Brianna Turner seemingly back at full strength, the Irish defense has made massive strides. Notre Dame is allowing opponents only 55.5 points a game with Turner, compared to 76.4 without her.

Thursday’s game will be a landmark for Allen. The Notre Dame junior point guard is expected to make her 98th consecutive start – that is every game since the beginning of her freshman year. The start would break the current record of 97 set by former South Bend Washington star Jacqueline Batteast.

Notre Dame has won 52 of its last 54 road games and in more than two seasons in the ACC, only a defeat at Miami last season has kept them from being perfect in league play.

Amazing offensive balance has been one factor in the Irish success this season. Six Notre Dame players average 8.8 points or higher, and four are in double figures. Turner leads the Irish in scoring at 14.0, just ahead of Madison Cable at 13.8.

After the Georgia Tech game, the Irish return home briefly before a Monday night game against Duke.

DePaul’s Jessica January (14) drives next to Notre Dame’s Mychal Johnson (14) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame 19-1 (7-0) vs. Georgia Tech 12-8 (2-5).

WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m. (EST)

WHERE: McCamish Pavilion, Atlanta, Ga.

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

INTERNET: ESPN3

Notre Dame is 5-0 in the series against Georgia Tech ... The Irish have played seven teams ranked in the Top 25 and defeated six of them, losing only by 10 to No. 1 Connecticut ... If Notre Dame notches its 20th victory Thursday night, it will be the 22nd time in the last 23 years the Irish have reached that victory total ... Aaliyah Whiteside, a 6-foot senior, is Tech’s leading scorer at 21.8 points a game. Classmate Roddreka Rogers is next at 11.2 points. Whiteside grabs 7.5 rebounds and Rogers 6.9 each game ... Notre Dame continues to lead the nation (through Tuesday) in 3-point shooting percentage at .442. The Irish are second in the nation in overall shooting percentage — .500 ... Tech coach Machelle Joseph was the Big Ten player of the year in her senior season (1992) at Purdue.