Women's hoops opener vs. CMU educational for No. 1 Notre Dame

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – The view atop the November world of women’s college basketball is heady and dazzling for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.

Staying on that lofty No. 1 perch is a precarious matter. It will take a long grind of regular-season matchups with Atlantic Coast Conference rivals, a dose of clashes with highly-ranked non-conference opponents and tournaments at the start and finish of the season.

“We have to take things one game at a time and enjoy the journey,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw.

The first step in Notre Dame’s 2016-17 trek, the first step in keeping that No. 1 ranking, comes Friday night against Central Michigan in the opening game of the preseason WNIT tournament. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion. It would take four victories to seize the WNIT championship. If Notre Dame wins and advances, all four games would be at home.

Fans hoping to get a look at freshman Jackie Young will have to wait. She injured a thumb in last week's exhibition and ''will be out for awhile,'' according to McGraw.

Central Michigan, the first Irish opponent of the season, is not expected to be a cupcake. Favored to win the Mid-American Conference, the Chippewas return four starters from last season’s team, one that missed the ACC title and the NCAA tourney last season when they gave up a basket with three seconds to play in the conference championship game.

“It’s a great opener for us. We are going to get a challenge,” said McGraw. “We have to figure out what our weaknesses are – how they will guard us, what do they think is the way to stop us. We will learn a lot after that first game.”

Trying to figure out a way to stop or slow the Irish will be a headache for any opponent. Last week, in an exhibition game, Notre Dame scored 129 points (giving up 50) against Roberts Wesleyan. That 129-point outburst would have shattered the Irish scoring record, but did not count because it was in an exhibition game. The regular-season record for ND is 128, notched against Mercer in 2011 and matched in 2012 against St. Francis.

Notre Dame has many weapons on offense. Sophomore Marina Mabrey led the way against Roberts Wesleyan with 28 points. Kristina (Coco) Nelson added 24, freshman Erin Boley 22, Arike Ogunbowale 18, Brianna Turner 16 and Young 15.

Young added 10 rebounds, five assists and three steals. She left the game after injuring her thumb and was able to return, but now it's uncertain when she will be back.

On a brighter note, junior Mychal Johnson, who missed the first contest with a wrist problem, will be playing Friday.

She practiced this week and her return could add another spark to the defense, which impressed in the exhibition.

Notre Dame limited Roberts Wesleyan to 25 percent shooting, had 19 steals (four each by Kathryn Westbeld and Mabrey) and forced 27 turnovers.

Central Michigan is ''a dribble-drive team,'' according to McGraw. "They can kick it out and shoot a lot of threes. Our defense will be challenged.''

The Irish coach knows her team can score plenty. But she is quick to point out that last year’s only two defeats came when the Irish allowed some 90 points – to Connecticut and Stanford in the NCAA regional opener.

“We will be focused on and stressing defense all year,” she said.

Notre Dame will be looking to see many things Friday night. Can Coco Nelson, who came into this season with a new outlook and tons of confidence, play regularly like she did against Roberts Wesleyan? Can the Irish meet the staff’s goal of a rebound margin of plus-10 with regularity? Can the Irish pressure lead to easy transition baskets?

Central Michigan has two All-Mac performers to try to ruin the Irish opener. Presley Hudson is a 5-foot-6 sophomore who averaged 13.9 points in her freshman season. Helping her will be Tinara Moore, a 6-3 junior who scored 13.7 points a game last year.

If Notre Dame triumphs, it will meet the winner of the Fordham-Furman WNIT contest. That game would be played Monday night at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame guard Ali Patberg (left) drives down the court during an Irish exhibition game against Roberts Wesleyan on Nov. 3. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)