Lesar: Talented Notre Dame women's hoops freshmen need to be thinking 'defense'

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – No such thing as a slow transition for big-time freshmen in women’s college basketball.

Seventeen days before the first exhibition, Notre Dame’s two rookies – Erin Boley and Jackie Young – have their roles defined and responsibilities spelled out.

They have the pedigree. Both won national prep player of the year awards last year. The 6-foot-2 Boley, Kentucky’s best, scored more than 3,300 career points. Young, 6-0, was Indiana’s all-time leading scorer – boys or girls – with 3,268 points, while having her senior season end in the sectional round.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw understands the situation. She’s seen shooters and scorers come through her program over the last three decades. What she needs to see are “system” players.

System players play defense.

“For them to play, defense is always the biggest challenge,” McGraw said Tuesday during the Irish women’s media day. “High school defense is not quite like college defense and what we expect of them.

“Jackie has made great strides. She’s athletic. She can really guard on the perimeter. The defense; the rebounding; those are the kinds of things they need to learn. The offense, that’s the least of my worries.”

Boley, regarded by McGraw as the team’s best 3-point shooter, will likely have a dual role – “stretch” four (tall shooting guard) or small forward. That will make her assimilation into the system even a bit tougher.

“No question about it, we want her to be a 3-point shooter,” McGraw said. “We want her on the perimeter. We’ll look at a four-guard lineup with her.”

Boley has come by her shooting prowess honestly. Her dad had her working from an early age.

“My dad was a shooter (at Western Kentucky University),” Boley said. “He taught me from a young age to be a shooter. I was always a shooter growing up.

“I’ve got a basket in my driveway. I know every basket in town (Hodgenville, Ky.). I’ve always been one to get to the gym and get a lot of shots up.”

Now, besides just putting up the shots, she’ll have to develop a complete game.

“Right now, defense is really high (on a list of priorities),” Boley said. “It hasn’t been high. In high school, it’s something I wish I would have focused on more. It’s been the toughest transition coming in, how to play smart on defense.”

“(Focusing on defense) is different,” Young said, able to smile about it. “We’re playing the (male) practice team; they’re a lot faster, stronger. You have to make sure you’re taking the right angles and doing the right things on defense. That helps make sure you dig down deep and focus on every defensive possession.”

Focus is a key to survival for a couple young guns, feeling their way through the infancy stage of college basketball.

“They’re going to go through the highs and lows,” said Irish sophomore Arike Ogunbowale, young enough to remember. “It’s a big adjustment. After being the top player in high school, everybody’s on your level in college.

“You have to find a way to separate yourself. You have to go through that learning process and perfect your craft.”

With three starters and nine monogram winners back from a 33-2 team, finding a niche can have its challenges.

“It’s difficult for freshmen to fit in because we have such a veteran team,” said McGraw. “Our offense has stayed the same every year, so there’s a comfort level. With the freshmen, it’s a little bit of a learning curve. Every time we put in something new, there’s a little bit of a learning curve. Everybody else knows it. They feel like they’re the only two who don’t know exactly what you’re doing.”

Being in the same boat, the rookies have gravitated toward each other and formed a bond. They became acquainted while sharing some all-star experiences over the summer, and have taken it to the next level since June.

“Jackie and I have gotten really close since we’ve been here,” Boley said. “We’re together all the time. We help each other out.”

“We’re both quiet,” Young said. “We don’t go out of our way to talk to anybody. Being the only two freshmen coming in has drawn us closer.”

Sharing the experience – good and bad – has been important for both.

“The transition’s been really good,” Boley said. “Finding a niche is something every freshman goes through. That’s a struggle that, going into any program, you know you’re going to have to face.

“That’s just part of the process. All I can do is work hard every day.”

“Coach hasn’t gotten too frustrated with us yet,” Young said. “We’re able to get into the flow. If we need to talk about it with someone, we’re able to do that.

“At first, (not knowing the offense) was frustrating. I had to sit there and think, ‘Oh, am I supposed to do this? Am I supposed to cut this way? What am I supposed to do?’

“The more we’ve been practicing, the more comfortable I’ve been getting.”

Erin Boley (22) and Jackie Young (5) pose for photos during Notre Dame women's basketball media day on Monday inside Purcell Pavilion (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)