Notre Dame starts tough conference stretch Thursday

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – There is much to be said about a college basketball team peaking as March approaches.

It’s not nearly March, but the Notre Dame women’s basketball team needs to act like it is. The time to bring its “A” game is right now.

The Irish (18-3, 6-1) will play five teams ranked in the Top 25 during their final nine games and it all starts Thursday night when No. 14 Duke (17-3, 5-2) comes calling at Purcell Pavilion.

It’s Lindsay Allen time. It’s Brianna Turner time.

The Irish will need solid performances from both veterans to weather the rugged final weeks of the season. Notre Dame must keep pace with Florida State, the only other Atlantic Coast Conference team with one league loss.

“It’s a big game for both of us,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw referring to Duke being just one game behind in the loss column.

Pressure? Turner doesn’t feel it.

“That doesn’t bother me,” she said. “We have a great team. There are so many aspects to it. We know anyone can score.”

Turner does her share of scoring, despite almost regular double-teams. She leads the Irish with her 14.7 scoring average and also leads the team in rebounding at 7.4 per game.

“Bri played really well (at North Carolina),” said McGraw. “She was really active. She put the ball on the floor well.”

Turner had an All-American type outing with 24 points and 12 rebounds in that last Irish victory.

Turner, the ACC player of the year last season, doesn’t feel any added burden in a big game like the Duke

matchup.

“I think the whole year I need to play big for this team,’’ she said. “Surely tomorrow (Thursday) will be a great rebounding battle. I have to win the boards. I have to play aggressive and get to the right spots.’’

Getting to the right spots has been a trademark of Turner, who is often found there by Allen, one of the best point guards in the women’s game today. When Turner is in the right spot, she has been on the receiving end of many of Allen’s 713 career assists. Allen leads the ACC with 154 assists in league play.

Turner has some other impressive numbers as well, including a league leading 48 blocks. She ranks second in league games with her shooting percentage of .615.

The Irish could be shorthanded Thursday. The status of junior Kathryn Westbeld, a two- year starter who missed the last two games with an ankle injury, will be a game-time decision, according to McGraw.

Junior Mychal Johnson, who started one of the two games Westbeld missed, is “doubtful,” McGraw said. Johnson popped her shoulder Wednesday and had her right arm in a sling.

That means highly-touted freshmen Erin Boley and Jackie Young could see significant minutes. If Westbeld does not go, McGraw said she “will look at the matchups and decide who to start.’’

Another player likely to continue to get added minutes is sophomore Ali Patberg, who played 20 minutes each of the last two games, scoring six points in each outing.

“Ali has a lot of defensive toughness,’’ McGraw said. “She is a good defender. I see her confidence growing.”

“I didn’t expect to play her with LA (Allen) at the same time, but it’s great to have two people run the offense and get us into stuff.”

The Irish lead the conference in several statistical categories, and have the ammunition to battle the ranked teams remaining on their schedule. (See accompany information box).

Duke’s top two players are 5-foot-9 junior Lexie Brown, a Maryland transfer, who averages 17.5 points a game and 6-1 redshirt junior Rebecca Greenwell, who scores at a 16.7 clip.

“Lexie Brown really changed the culture of their team,” said McGraw. “I think she made them a very different team than what they were last year. “They have some bigs off the bench – they have a lot of depth.”

Kendall Cooper and Erin Mathias are 6-4 and Leaonna Odom is 6-2.

“We slipped up at North Carolina State,” said McGraw (the only ACC loss). “We really have to be ready for every game.”

And that starts in earnest Thursday against Duke.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) passes around Wake Forest’s Ariel Stephenson (25) during the Wake Forest at Notre Dame women’s basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

WHO: No. 8 Notre Dame (18-3, 6-1) vs. No. 14 Duke (17-3, 5-2).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion, (9,149)

WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

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

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

TELEVISION: None

GAME NOTES: Notre Dame leads the series with Duke 13-1, including victories in the last 11 games ... Duke coach JoAnne McCallie has a 261-68 record with the Blue Devils. A graduate of Northwestern University, she previously coached at Michigan State and Maine. She was the national coach of the year in 2005 with Michigan State ... Irish freshman Jackie Young is 15-for-15 in ACC games this season ... Lindsay Allen’s 713 career assists are fifth all-time in the ACC. She is 73 assists away from being the league’s all-time assist leader ... Brianna Turner is fourth in career field goal percentage in the ACC with her mark of .614 ... Following Turner’s team-leading scoring average of 14.7 is sophomore Arike Ogunbowale at 14.6 and fellow sophomore Marina Mabrey at 13.1.