Big road test awaits Notre Dame women's basketball team

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

It's time for Notre Dame to be handed another major test — a high-pressured women's basketball game that could add another dose of respect to a resume at NCAA Tournament time.

“It is a chance to step outside the conference and play a game that is important nationally,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw Sunday about playing at Tennessee Monday night.

The "Big Monday'' game will be televised by ESPN2.

Important nationally? You bet.

Especially to Tennessee.

The 10-6 Vols are just outside the Top 25 after going 2-3 against ranked teams so far this season.

Notre Dame comes in ranked No. 6 at 16-2.

“Tennessee always is a big game for us,” said senior point guard Lindsay Allen. “They really pose a challenge for us. We are not used to seeing that kind of athleticism and length.”

Indeed.

The Vols have a big three capable of making a long night for any opponent.

A senior, 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell, leads Tennessee with a 16.4 scoring average and 6-1 redshirt junior Diamond DeShields, the most versatile player on the team, is at 16.3. At 15.4 a game is 6-2 junior Jaime Nard.

“Diamond is really capable of carrying a team,” said McGraw of DeShields , who transferred to Tennessee after a year at North Carolina. “She is probably No. 1 in the draft coming out next year. She is incredibly talented in all ways – she can shoot the three, drive by you and post you up ... She can do a lot of different things.”

Tennessee scores at 75.4 points a game; the Irish are at 79.3.

That indicates an up-and-down-the-floor kind of game is likely.

And Allen likes that.

“We love transition,'' she said. "It will be a great fast game. We are working on things to beat their pressure. We have to be careful with our passes and we are focusing in on that.”

It wasn't that long ago when this was not such a big game.

Tennessee won the first 20 meetings between the two teams.

But ND won in 2011 and has won the last six meetings. It was a period when the Irish burst from a very good team annually to an elite outfit in women's college basketball.

“Every game is a challenge with them,'' McGraw said. "But it usually is when we play someone. We have to match their intensity.”

Adding to the emotion on the Tennessee side is that the game is a “We Back Pat” game to help raise funds for the Pat Summitt Foundation, dedicated to defeating Alzheimer's disease.

Summitt is the legendary Hall of Fame former coach of the Vols died last July.

So how can the Irish do what is necessary in front of what is expected to be a large, hostile, orange-clad crowd.?

“I always think Jackie Young is the X factor for us,'' McGraw said. "She comes off the bench and gives us a different look. She can defend. She can score. It is a lot of pressure to put on a freshman, but I think she is ready to handle it.”

Young scored 15 points in the last Irish game Thursday against Georgia Tech, finally recovering from first a thumb, then an ankle injury that slowed her progress in the early season.

She had a 20-point outing against Valparaiso before being hurt soon after.

McGraw, whose starting lineup has been intact virtually all season, looks to another freshman for more help – 6-foot-2 Erin Boley.

“Offensively she has been terrific,'' McGraw said. "She knows exactly where she is supposed to be. She gets her shot off quickly. We need to look for her more when she is in the game.

“I think she is doing good things rebounding wise. The zone is tough for her to figure out, but she is really working hard. I would love to give her more playing time.”

But it will be the starting five of Allen, Brianna Turner, Kathryn Westbeld, Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey who be counted on to set the tone early.

"These road tests have been good for us (the Irish have played seven of their last nine games on the road).'' Allen said. "They will help when we go into the ACC and NCAA tournament. We are always confident. We want to be the best prepared and hardest working team on the floor. The road games help us build camaraderie – playing with and for each other.”

Notre Dame is at Boston College on Thursday and at North Carolina next Sunday.

Notre Dame’s Marina Mabrey and Notre Dame have a date Monday at Tennessee in a matchup of traditional powers. (SBT Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)

WHO: No. 6 Notre Dame (16-2, 4-1) vs. Tennessee (10-6, 2-2 in SEC).

WHERE: Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn. (21.678).

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.

TELEVISION: ESPN2

INTERNET: Game can be seen online at WatchESPN.com (formerly ESPN 3) or through the WatchESPNapp.tv

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) in South Bend

TELEVISION: ESPN2

NOTING: Notre Dame ranks fifth nationally with a team shooting percentage of 49.2 ... The Irish hit 27 of 30 at home last Thursday to raise their season mark to .694. ... Arike Ogunbowale continues to lead the Irish offensively with her 15.1 scoring average. ... Tennessee is coached by Holly Warlick. She is 108-34 in her three-plus seasons. Warlick played point guard at Tennessee from 1976 to 1980 ... The game is tabbed a "We Back Pat" game to help raise funds for the Pat Summitt Foundation. Summitt coached the Vols for 38 seasons, posting a career record of 1098-208. She led Tennessee to eight NCAA championships. ... Muffet McGraw, in her 30th season as head coach at Notre Dame, has posted 836 victories, including 748 with the Irish.