McGraw varying Notre Dame starting lineup and rotation

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – The short break for Christmas is over and the Notre Dame women’s basketball team is ready to resume a program-high six-game road swing when it travels to Chattanooga , Tenn., Tuesday for a matchup with the 5-7 Tennessee-Chattanooga Mocs.

It will be reunion of sorts for Irish coach Muffet McGraw when she meets Chattanooga coach Jim Foster again. McGraw began her collegiate coaching career in 1980 as an assistant to Foster at St. Joseph’s where the Irish coach also played.

The Irish, 11-1 and ranked No. 2, will stay south of the Mason-Dixon Line after the meeting with the Mocs, traveling to North Carolina State for a Thursday night game – one that starts the Atlantic Coast Conference portion of the Irish season.

Since an 11-point setback to Connecticut on Dec. 7, the Irish have coasted to victories over DePaul, Toledo and Michigan State, flashing a bit of the fire McGraw wanted to see from them.

“I want them to play mad – to play with intensity,” McGraw said after the Connecticut loss.

The veteran Irish coach has been varying the starting lineup and rotation since that game, making use of the various talents on the roster.

Mychal Johnson, for example, started the last game against the Spartans, just her second start of the year.

Johnson is a force defensively and brings the kind of hustle to the lineup, Irish fans were used to last season with Madison Cable and Hannah Huffman.

The offense finally has been getting the ball inside to All-American Brianna Turner more often and more effectively in the last three games – a tool McGraw felt was being under-utilized earlier in the season.

The result is apparent, though the competition, obviously, isn't the same as what Connecticut threw at ND.

Turner scored 14 points against DePaul, exploded for 26 against Toledo, then 19 against Michigan State.

She is now tied for the team scoring lead with Arike Ogunbowale at 15.3.

“My teammates have been finding me and getting the ball to me inside,” said Turner after the Michigan State game, one in which she also posed five blocked shots.

Opposing coaches early in the season marveled at the number of weapons the Irish have at their disposal. It is considerably more than one player opposing defenses have to watch.

Ogunbowale scored 30 against Central Michigan, classmate Marina Mabrey exploded for 27 against Louisiana-Lafayette, then Turner notched her 26 at Toledo.

It even goes beyond that.

“Erin Boley is probably the best 3-point shooter on the team,” McGraw has said, and the Irish coach loves what freshman Jackie Young brings to the floor.

Young is a proven scorer (she notched 20 points against Valparaiso), but has flashed defensive prowess as well and has helped Notre Dame in all facets of the game when she was healthy. An ankle injury slowed Young of late, but she is recovering and has returned to game action.

Then there is junior Kathryn Westbeld, a fixture in the starting lineup since last December. Westbeld posted a double-double against Michigan State with 12 points and 11 rebounds against the Spartans.

“I have more confidence in my shooting this year,” Westbeld said early in the season. “But I want to make sure I contribute on the boards and on defense as well.”

Turner, Westbeld and Johnson have a number set that is impressive.

With Turner on the floor, the Irish have outscored opponents by 29.33, with Westbeld on the floor it's plus-29.31 and with Johnson playing they outscore the opposition by 27.06 points. Westbeld leads all Notre Dame players in shooting percentage at her 59 percent through 12 games.

That blend of talent, guided by senior point guard Lindsay Allen.

Notre Dame has won 14 straight road games entering Tuesday’s contest with Chattanooga, a streak that is third longest in the nation.

Following Turner and Ogunbowale’s 15. 3 scoring averages, the Irish also have Mabrey in double figures at 13.1.

Foster is in his fourth season with the Mocs. He led his team to an incredible 82-16 record the first three years, but his squad is limping a bit this season with a 5-7 record.

Notre Dame guard Mychal Johnson (14) made her second start recently against Michigan State. (AP Photo/RICK OSENTOSKI)

WHEN: Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

WHERE: McKenzie Arena, Chattanooga, Tenn.

TV: None

INTERNET: WatchESPN

RADIO: Pulse FM, 96.9

• GAME NOTES: Chattanooga coach Jim Foster is in his 39th year as a head coach. He has won 870 games, eighth on the all-time NCAA list ... Notre Dame has met the Mocs only once before, winning at home in 2014. ... Senior Jasmine Joyner leads Chattanooga in scoring at 11.1 per game, followed by senior Queen Alford at 10.4 and freshman Lakelyn Bouldin at 10.2 ... The top Notre Dame rebounders continue to be Brianna Turner at 7.3 each outing and Kathryn Westbeld at 6.7.