Notre Dame women's basketball piecing it together

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Muffet McGraw loves a good puzzle.

Tinkering with lineups, chemistry and evolving players for the most efficient end result gets the Notre Dame women's basketball coach's adrenaline flowing.

Now, missing puzzle pieces are another story.

And the sixth-ranked Irish (17-3 overall, 5-1 ACC) are still trying to figure out how to cope with the loss of starting forward Kathryn Westbeld, who will miss her second straight game Sunday, when the Irish visit North Carolina (12-7, 1-5).

Westbeld suffered an ankle injury in practice the day before an 80-69 ND road victory at Boston College on Thursday night. Freshman Erin Boley drew the start against the Eagles, and garnered six points, four rebounds and three assists in 21 minutes of court time.

“I thought she responded really well, especially for a freshman making her first start," McGraw said. "“It’s a difficult choice to see who will start (against the Tar Heels). Who is going to be ready? We are going to be a different team without Kat. We will play differently. .... I might go small.”

As for Westbeld, she won't even make the trip for Notre Dame's 10th road game in its past 12 games. McGraw said Westbeld is due to undergo an MRI.

"It’s really tough," McGraw said of the 6-foot-2 junior, who averages 8.6 points and 5.6 rebounds. "She is the glue of our team. She does all the little things to keep us together.”

The Irish may lean on sophomore guard Marina Mabrey to make up for some of Westbeld's missing intangibles as well as providing tangibles of her own, namely scoring and perimeter shooting.

“She has been really good lately,” McGraw said. “She has been our leading scorer and is making some big shots. I am happy with where she is right now and would love to see her stay there.”

Mabrey also knows she has to show consistency.

“I just started to get the little things right and understand what we are trying to do as a program and as a team," said Mabrey, scoring at a 13.1 ppg clip with 38 points over ND's past two games. "I want to stay consistent, so the coaches know what to expect from me.

“I feel like I am doing a better job. But I need to stay focused. I get distracted easily."

And it's been contagious. The Irish have let big leads evaporate in a loss at Tennessee and an unimpressive win at BC.

“I think we took our foot off the pedal and slowed it down, using more of a motion offense," Mabrey said. "We are working on that. We have done that a few times and it has hurt us a few times. Staying aggressive and attacking would help."

Sunday's matchup features two of the women's game's coaching icons. Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell has posted 987 career wins, while McGraw has 837.

“Every time we come to town it is a big game (for the opponent),” said McGraw. “We still have a target on our backs. I think they will be ready for us. It’s a big game for us as well.”

Notre Dame’s Kathryn Westbeld (33) puts up a shot during the Notre Dame women’s basketball game at Purcell Pavilion Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

WHO: No. 6 Notre Dame (17-3, 5-1) vs. North Carolina (12-7, 1-5).

WHERE: Carmichael Arena, Chapel Hill, N.C.

WHEN: Sunday at noon.

INTERNET: Game can be seen online at WatchESPN.com or through the WatchESPN app.tv

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

TELEVISION: ESPNU

GAME NOTES: Notre Dame leads the series with North Carolina, 5-1. ... The Irish are first in the ACC with a .494 shooting mark and first in 3-point shooting at .407. Notre Dame also leads the conference in assists per game at 18.9. ... North Carolina is 14th out of 15 teams in the league in scoring defense, and the Irish are second in that category, allowing only 59.7 points per ACC game. ... The Tar Heels have four players scoring in double figures — 5-11 sophomore Stephanie Watts at 18.8, 5-9 redshirt sophomore Paris Kea at 14.5, 5-10 sophomore Destinee Walker at 12.2 and 5-8 junior Jamie Cherry at 10.7. ... Notre Dame counters with a trio of double-figure scorers in sophomore Arike Ogunbowale at 14.8, junior Brianna Turner at 14.3 and sophomore Marina Mabrey at 13.1.