Irish won't let size be a negative factor

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – When size is a problem, a good basketball team learns to compensate.

A great basketball team is able to force the issue.

Earlier this week, the Notre Dame women were dealt a significant challenge by Duke. The Irish found a way to survive by seven points.

Thursday night, in the midst of an 82-46 thrashing of North Carolina State, Notre Dame started working on the fundamentals that will keep those concerns from escalating again.

Sunday, Duke loaded its front line with Amber Henson (6-foot-4), Oderah Chidom (6-4) and Azura Stevens (6-6). Toss in Rebecca Greenwell (6-1), who knows her way around the basket, and the Blue Devils were pretty tough to handle.

They led 47-45 after three quarters and finished the game with seven more rebounds than the Irish, who countered with 6-3 Brianna Turner – the best player in the Atlantic Coast Conference and one of the best posts in the country – and 6-2 Kathryn Westbeld.

What happened in the decisive final 10 minutes was an improved effort by all five Irish on the floor.

“(A bigger team has to) worry about us,” said Irish assistant coach Carol Owens, who is in charge of the post play. “We can only do what we do. It’s all about strategy and scouting.

“It’s not anything we worry about. Yeah, (Duke) has the size, but they have to worry about guarding our guards. That’s how we counter that. We play to our strengths.”

Speed and nifty ballhandling in the transition game are some of the primary strengths Notre Dame will bring into the gauntlet of tough upcoming conference games – Louisville, Miami and Florida State – and beyond.

Thursday night, the Irish just started to scratch the surface on a weapon that might be underrated in college basketball. It’s that 12-to-15-foot jump shot that can force a taller team to leave its comfort zone and defend in space.

“Our zone offense needs some work,” said Irish head coach Muffet McGraw. “We’ve seen very little zone so far. We stood around (against Duke). We weren’t into it. We didn’t have a great plan. We learned a lot about what we did offensively.

“We’re looking at putting some guards inside. Arike (Ogunbowale) was there (against the Wolfpack); we’re looking at putting Madison (Cable) in there a little more. That free throw area, the ACC (decal on the floor) area, we get a lot of shots in there.

“(In the past) we put Jewell (Loyd) in there; we put (Kayla McBride) in there.”

That halfcourt attack isn’t the offense of choice. When the Irish are faced with some tall timber, their first inclination will be to run it off the hardwood.

“We have to make it an uptempo game,” Owens said. “When our transition is going, it looks really good.”

But uptempo doesn’t just happen.

“It has to be rebounding (to push the tempo),” McGraw said. “We’re not great with steals. Overall, it’s gotta be rebounding. We work on the outlet every day.”

“Transition starts with rebounding, steals, and just having (the opposition) take bad shots,” Owens said. “That’s what (Duke) was worried about, our transition.”

It’s something that continues to be a constant for the Irish, who outscored North Carolina State 10-2 in fast-break points and won the battle of the boards, 38-28.

“Our posts are doing well,” Owens said. “We have one of the best players in the country in Brianna Turner (14 points, 2 rebounds, 2 blocks Thursday night). She impacts the game on both ends of the floor. (Westbeld – 4 points, 6 boards, 4 steals) has a dimension where she can shoot the free-throw jumper, so they have to guard her.

“We’re a very smart team. When we get our transition going, we’re pretty dangerous.”

Given that, size should never be an issue.

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