Notre Dame, Louisville women set to tussle for first place

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

Quite simply, this game needs no hype.

When the Notre Dame and Louisville women’s basketball teams meet at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Yum Center, the winner will go home with sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Both teams enter the game with 10-0 league marks. Each is carrying a 15-game winning streak. Coach Muffet McGraw’s Irish are 22-1 and ranked No. 3 in the nation. No. 13-ranked Louisville, coached by Jeff Walz, is 18-5.

“They are playing really well right now,” said McGraw. “They are young (The Cardinals start no seniors), but playing their best basketball. It will be a huge test for us.”

A look at the numbers shows both teams are similar. Both have four players scoring in double figures and both love the up-tempo, transition game. In conference games, Notre Dame tops the league in scoring at 81.0 points. The Cardinals are fourth at 72.6 each outing.

On the defensive end, Louisville tops the ACC by holding opponents to 60.5 points, while the Irish are a half-point behind at 61.0.That number is deceiving, because since Brianna Turner returned from her shoulder injury early in the season, Notre Dame has held opponents to only 54.5 per game. Three of the last four Irish foes have been held to fewer than 50 points.

Turner’s defensive dominance looks even more impressive when one studies the numbers. Without Turner for six games, Notre Dame allowed 76.8 points and opponents were shooting at .458 overall and .339 from 3-point range. But, with Turner, those numbers fall drastically to 54.5 points and .336 and .278 respectively.

“We are playing our best defense of the year,” McGraw said after holding North Carolina State to 46 in Thursday’s home victory. “We have a good rotation and good chemistry.”

With only five league games remaining after Sunday, an Irish victory would be a major step toward accomplishing one of their season goals — to win a third straight ACC regular-season championship.

Louisville, similarly, knows a win at home Sunday would put it in the driver’s seat. The Cardinals earlier defeated Florida State by 10 points. The Seminoles are only a step behind Notre Dame and Louisville. The loss to the Cardinals is the only league blemish on their record.

“We will approach this like every game,” said Irish sharpshooter Madison Cable, talking about Louisville after the Thursday night pasting of North Carolina State when she scored a team-high 25 points. “We will work on them and practice hard on Friday and Saturday and just try to play our game.” 

The Irish “game” has served them well on the road. Notre Dame has won 54 of its last 56 road games. And, if the game is close? Again, history is on the side of the Irish, who have won 25 consecutive games decided by single digits.

Notre Dame will be playing its seventh ranked team this season. The Irish have disposed of six of those seven, with the 10-point loss at Connecticut when Turner was hurt and did not play the lone blemish. They are familiar with and often feed off large, opposing crowds. Notre Dame knows it will be blanketed in a sea of red-clad Cardinal fans Sunday. But, having played in two straight national championships and having been to five straight Final Fours, Notre Dame is used to the big stage.

A factor helping to define Notre Dame’s success this year has been the play of the Irish freshmen and their collective bench. Freshman Arike Ogunbowale, who McGraw has called “instant offense” on many occasions, averages 11.4 points and has been a major help by attacking the basket when the ND offense stagnates. Her classmate, Marina Mabrey, has contributed 11.7 points. Collectively, the Notre Dame bench has outscored its opponents 17 points a game.

Yet it is the play of point guard Lindsay Allen who makes the Irish go. Allen is second in the ACC with 5.38 assists in conference games. Allen can make her impact in the scoring column known as well. She put up some huge scoring numbers in last season’s NCAA tournament and averages 9.1 points.

The big numbers this year are being put up by Cable at 14.0 and Turner at 13.9. Turner leads the club in blocked shots and rebounds (6.9), but gets plenty of backboard help from sophomore Kathryn Westbeld (6.2).

After Sunday’s meeting with Louisville, Notre Dame will be idle until Sunday, Feb. 14, when it will host Miami — the only ACC team to beat the Irish in the last two seasons.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw looks for her team's strong stretch of defense to continue Sunday at Louisville. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame 22-1 (10-0) vs. No. 13 Louisville 18-5 (10-0)

WHERE: Yum Center, Louisville, Ky.

WHEN: Sunday, 2 pm (EST)

TV: ESPN2

INTERNET: ESPN3/WatchESPN

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1)/WatchND

GAME NOTES: Louisville coach Jeff Walz is in his eighth year with the Cardinals. He posted a 208-77 record in his first seven seasons ... Notre Dame leads the series, 11-4, dating back to the days both were in the Big East Conference. The Irish have won the last eight matchups ... Half of the players on the McDonald's All-American East team in 2015 play for Notre Dame (Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale and Ali Patberg) and Louisville players (Taja Cole, Asia Durr and Samantha Fuehring) ... Sophomore Myisha Hines-Allen is the top Cardinal scorer at 15.points. Other Cardinals in double figures are Mariya Moore at 14.8, Briahanna Jackson at 12.0 and Asia Durr at 11.6 ... Notre Dame leads the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at .416 and is fourth in overall shooting percentage at .491.