Defense lifts Notre Dame women's basketball to preseason WNIT championship

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – Long before the season started, Notre Dame’s women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw said defense was what she had to have from her team in big games this season.

And it was an amazing first-half defensive effort Sunday afternoon, coupled with an early offensive outburst at Purcell Pavilion that had much to do with the Irish winning the preseason WNIT championship, downing Washington 71-60.

Washington coach Mike Neighbors thought it was the offense that put his team back on its heels. Notre Dame roared to a 12-0 lead and was on top of the Huskies 25-8 after the first quarter.

“That 25-8 start was a big punch in the mouth,” said Neighbors. “The environment here is tremendous. We are not used to playing in front of 8,100 people. That had a lot to do with it.”

McGraw loved seeing her Irish hold Washington to only 22 first-half points on 22.6 percent shooting. Washington had averaged 93 points a game in their first three WNIT outings. Neighbors was impressed as well. “We had a quick turnaround after the Missouri game (Thursday night). We did not have access to our men’s practice team. It would have taken that to simulate the kind of defensive intensity Notre Dame had.”

“We got off to a great start and that was the key to the game,” said McGraw. “Arike (Ogunbowale) was on and she made some really good shots. We did a lot of good things. We controlled the tempo late in the game. Lindsay (Allen) got the ball in her hands and it was a great way to run our offense.”

Ogunbowale was voted the most valuable player of the WNIT. Allen joined her on the all-tourney team, along with Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor of Washington. Jessica Lindstrom of Green Bay and Cierra Porter of Missouri also were voted to the team.

“I feel more comfortable this year,” said Ogunbowale. I have a bigger role since three seniors left. I had to step up. But this MVP is a team thing,” she said.

Ogunbowale, the leading scorer for the Irish through four games (19.8 points a game) notched 17 Sunday, and the Irish had four in double figures. Kathryn Westbeld scored 14, Allen 13 and Brianna Turner had a “quiet” double-double with 10 points and a team-high 12 rebounds.

Westbeld was instrumental in the second half for the Irish. “Kathryn took over the game for a stretch in third quarter,” said McGraw. “Bri was out with fouls. We were struggling to find some kind of rhythm. She just took over the game. She hit a couple 3s, made a couple drives – she played her best game of the season.”

“Kathryn. I watched her play since she was in sixth grade when I coached at Xavier,” said Neighbors. “She continues to improve her game.”

Both Neighbors and star guard Plum had nothing but praise for the Irish. “I’ve got a vote in the polls. They will get my vote for No. 1 tomorrow,” said Neighbors. And Plum, who scored 20 points but was held well below her average said, “That defensive performance from their entire team was the best I’ve seen since Syracuse in the Final Four. They sat on my left hand the entire game, made me take a step back. I just have to credit them. I think Lindsay, Jackie (Young) and Mychal (Johnson) all guarded me. They made me take some tough shots.”

McGraw praised the freshman Young as well. “I think Jackie really helps us defensively,” she said. "She looked a lot more poised in her second game.” Young missed the first two WNIT games with a thumb injury. She finished Sunday’s game with eight points in 21 minutes on the floor.

The Irish are now 4-0, but will have little time to rest. Notre Dame travels to Houston for a Tuesday night game against Louisiana Lafayette. The game will be the fifth in 11 days for the Irish. The game is a Notre Dame home game. No teams from the Houston area were able to play or would agree to play the Irish, but Louisiana Lafayette agreed to the matchup. It will be a homecoming for Turner, who played high school ball in Texas.

McGraw and her staff learned some things about the Irish team in these first four games. “In late shot clock times we need better clock management,” said McGraw. “We need to do a better job of that. That is the first thing. Foul trouble a bit of an issue We have to mix in some zone. We can’t play 40 minutes of man-to-man."

Washington did recover a bit in the second half and trailed the Irish by only 10 with six minutes to play, trimming a Notre Dame lead that had reached 19 points.

That is when Allen just took over. “I was just noticing what we needed to do, run the clock more on each possession. Coach called the sets and we ran them well.”

Neighbors noticed the impact Allen had on the game. “I think their senior leader in Lindsay makes all the difference,” he said. “She was in control of her team from start to finish. They did a good job of being patient. They got what they wanted. They are tremendous in transition.”

The Irish indeed got what it they wanted in the WNIT – four victories to start the season. Now Notre Dame will get tested in other ways. Eight of Notre Dame’s next 11 games are on the road.

NOTRE DAME (4-0): Arike Ogunbowale 8-17 0-2 17, Kathryn Westbeld 6-12 0-0 14, Lindsay Allen 5-12 3-6 13, Brianna Turner 3-6 4-6 10, Jackie Young 2-5 3-4 8, Kristina Nelson 2-7 1-2 5, Marina Mabrey 2-6 0-0 4, Erin Boley 0-1 0-0 0, Mychal Johnson 0-1 0-0 0, Totals 28-67 11-20 71.

WASHINGTON (3-1): Kelsey Plum 7-19 6-7 22, Chantel Osahor 4-10 2-3 11, Natalie Romeo 3-7 0-0 9, Mai-Loni Henson 2-4 3-4 8, Deja Strother 4-5 0-0 8, Hannah Johnson 1-5 0-0 2, Katie Collier 0-3 0-0 0, Heather Corral 0-3 0-0 0, Amber Melgoza 0-1 0-0 0, Totals 21-57 11-14 60.

Notre Dame     25     14     18     14—71

Washngton     8     14     21     17—60

3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 4-11 (Westbeld 2-2, Ogunbowale 1-3, Young 1-3, Allen 0-1, Johnson 0-1, Mabrey 0-1), Washington 7-22 (Romeo 3-6, Plum 2-6, Henson 1-2, Osahor 1-4, Corral 0-3, Johnson 0-1). Assists--Notre Dame 15 (Allen 4), Washington 12 (Plum 4). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 46 (Turner 12), Washington 34 (Osahor 12). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 15, Washngtn 18. A--8,106.

Washington’s Natalie Romeo (5) gets pressure from Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen (15) during the first half of Notre Dame's 71-60 win in an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin)