Big challenge awaits Notre Dame defense against Washington

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — In women’s college basketball circles, this one should be a honey.

It’s No. 1 Notre Dame against No. 17 Washington at 3 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion. At stake is the championship of the 2016 preseason WNIT tournament. The game will be televised by the CBS Sports Network.

Both teams won three early-round games in the WNIT to set up this clash. The Irish defeated Central Michigan and Green Bay, while Washington ousted Eastern Washington, Colorado State and Missouri.

Both teams can score – in bunches. In fact, Washington posted 100 points in the victory over Eastern Washington and 101 against Colorado State. The Irish, after racing to 107 in a first-round triumph over Central Michigan have been held to 67 and 71 by the deliberate styles of Fordham and Green Bay.

Many feel the Huskies should be ranked higher. After all, Washington made it to the Final Four last season, losing in a national semifinal game to Syracuse. Coach Mike Neighbors has plenty of talent back – especially guard Kelsey Plum, who scored 32 points in the semifinal victory over Missouri.

Joining her will be 6-foot-2 senior Chantel Osafor, a senior who has one of the most unique playing styles in women’s college basketball. Osafor scored 18 points and grabbed 16 rebounds against Missouri. Joining them is 6-3 redshirt senior Katie Collier, who did not play the Huskies’ last game, but is expected to be back for the test against the Irish.

Osafor is a big, but often tries to plant herself atop the key. From there she shoots the 3 flat-footed.

“And she makes them, though,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.

“She is not your typical post,'' added Notre Dame associate head coach Carol Owens. "She will play outside. We will have to play her like she is a guard.”

It has been an intense week for Notre Dame. Sunday’s game will be its fourth in nine games.

“We were tired. Beat up,” said McGraw after her team won physical games against Fordham and Green Bay earlier in the week.

"Lindsay (Allen) has been going major minutes and Bri (Brianna Turner) has been getting beaten up all week.”

Allen played all 40 minutes against Green Bay and 37 against Fordham.

Washington, according to McGraw, “is a different kind of team.”

“Plum is an amazing scorer. She is hard to guard. She can put in on the floor, she can pass. She likes to score.”

Plum currently is the third leading all-time scorer in the Pac-12 and has an excellent opportunity to become that conference’s all-time top scorer later in the season.

Normally among the nation’s top shooting teams, the Irish have struggled offensively a bit the last two games, shooting 42.4 percent against Fordham, but only 35.9 percent against Green Bay.

“I don’t think we are tight,” said McGraw. “We need to breathe a little bit more. We are becoming more deliberate on offense and I am not sure I really like that. I think we are running too many sets. We need to relax and just play more.”

Notre Dame has been very focused on getting the ball inside Turner, Kristina Nelson or Kathryn Westbeld. Their prolific 3-point shooters may be asked to fire up more in Sunday’s game.

“We are missing so many layups it’s frustrating,” said McGraw. “But we are getting really good shots. I can’t complain about that.

Notre Dame could be helped by a stronger Jackie Young. She missed the first two Irish games with a thumb injury, but came back to grab seven rebounds in only 15 minutes against Green Bay.

“She only practiced one day (before the Green Bay game),'' McGraw said. "She did a lot of good things. She is definitely a huge part of what we want to do.”

Sophomore Arike Ogunbowale leads the Irish in scoring, averaging 20.3 points through the first three games.

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale (24) squeezes between Fordham’s G'mrice Davis (5), left, and Danielle Burns (22) during the Fordham at Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA