Notre Dame's performance must match ACC praise

Ken Klimek Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Five of their players were named to the all-conference or all-freshman team. Their coach was selected as the coach of the year, but the accolades will not mean much if the team’s performance does not match the praise when the Notre Dame women open play in the Atlantic Coast Conference post-season tournament Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Sailing through the regular season unbeaten in ACC play, coach Muffet McGraw’s Irish begin their tourney journey at 2 pm Friday and will need three victories in three days if they are to win a third straight ACC tourney crown.

The Irish will meet the Duke Blue Devils, a team that gave Notre Dame fits Feb. 1 in Durham, N.C. The Irish trailed by five points with six minutes to play before rallying for a 68-63 victory.

Duke’s 6-foot-6 sophomore center Azurah Stevens, the league’s top rebounder (9.4 per game) and second-highest scorer (19.1 points) was injured early in that game and has missed seven straight contests. But she is expected back for the matchup with the Irish. Duke is 20-11.

Duke advanced by defeating Virginia, 57-53 on Thursday.

“We got some rest (the Irish have been idle since last Friday) but our mental focus is there,” said Irish senior vocal leader Michaela Mabrey. “We want to be ready, hopefully, to play three consecutive games. We had a great regular season. Now we just have to keep it rolling,” she added.

McGraw is hoping sophomore Kathryn Westbeld will be at full or near full-strength for the tourney opener. Westbeld injured an ankle against Florida State and missed the team’s last two regular-season games.

Everyone we are likely to play in this tournament we played on the road this year,” noted McGraw. “It will be good to get them on a neutral floor if we advance.” Should the Irish win their opener, ranked teams like Florida State and Louisville are potential opponents in this weekend’s games.

The veteran Irish coach has used the week leading up to the tournament to rest her players and to polish some areas of the Notre Dame performance she finds troubling.

Notre Dame, though 28-1, has squandered big leads with less then sparkling play late in some games. “Everyone in the league is good. When a team is down by 20 you play free. Your play your game. You make your shots. It’s a different mind set,” she added trying to explain those shrinking-lead games.

“I have watched the second half of a lot of our games this year to see what it is. Are we doing something different,” wondered McGraw. “Of course we are subbing more. We have lost a little bit of our sense of urgency – our intensity – that part is a concern. We have to get back to the mentality that every possession matters,” she said.

Still, the Irish balance and consistency have been key ingredients to their success. Four Irish players score in double figures, making it difficult for teams to try to double-team any single player. In all-conference Lindsay Allen, the Irish have the best point guard in the league. She leads the conference in assists at 5.66 per game.

Another all-conference selection, sophomore Brianna Turner, also voted the league’s defensive player of the year, leads the ACC in shooting percentage at .620 and in blocked shots with 3.13 per game.

Grad student Madison Cable, the third all-conference selection, is the most improved player in the country this season in McGraw’s opinion. In addition to scoring 13.6 points a game, one can find Cable diving for loose balls, taking charges and rebounding with much bigger players.

“We have to work on little things we got away with during the regular season,” said Mabrey. “Little things like rebounding, making the little hustle plays, not having mental lapses. We have to tighten those up if we want to go on in the tourney.”

Notre Dame’s depth has been a huge asset throughout the season. Freshmen Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale, both selected to the ACC all-freshman team, average in double figures and enable McGraw to give her starters rest.

“As soon as Jewell (Loyd) declared (last spring) for the WNBA draft, we started talking to the freshmen. ‘You are going to play a bigger role’ we told them,” McGraw said. “You need to come in ready. We talked to them about their contribution early on.”

And the freshmen have indeed contributed. We know we have to come with our best game,” said Ogunbowale of the tourney opener. “The seniors have been through it. We have to look to them and follow their lead. They have built and amazing program — an amazing culture,” she added.

That amazing Irish program and culture will be seriously tested — starting Friday.

Notre Dame's Madison Cable (22) looks for a shot next to Clemson's Victoria Cardaci (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin)

WHO: No. 2/3 Notre Dame 28-1 vs. Duke 20-11.

WHEN: Friday at 2 pm (EST)

WHERE: Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.

TICKETS: Available.

TELVISION: ACC Regional Sports Network – Comcast channel 101.


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

GAME NOTES: Duke is coached by Joanne McCaullie, in her ninth season with the Blue Devils. . . McCaullie is a Northwestern graduate and previously coached at Michigan Sate University. . . If Azurah Stevens, a 6-foot-6 sophomore is available to play (injury), she is the team’s leading scorer at 19.1 points a game. She also leads the team in rebounds at 9.4 a game. . . Other top Duke scorers are 6-1 redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell at 15.1 and Oderah Chidom, a 6-4 junior, at 9.3 per game. . .