Before honoring its past, Notre Dame must focus on Cavs

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Before Notre Dame can pay tribute to a piece of its historic past, the No. 8 Irish women’s basketball team has some urgent business to take care of in the present.

Virginia (14-6, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) comes to Purcell Pavilion on Sunday (noon EST; ESPNU) with size, balance and fresh off a stunning 76-27 dismantling of 17th-ranked Virginia Tech that matched the most lopsided victory in Cavaliers history.

After holding the Hokies to 19 percent shooting from the field, Virginia comes in as the No. 8 team in the nation in field goal-percentage defense (.338), No. 2 in 3-point-percentage defense (.249) and No. 4 in scoring defense (52.0 ppg).

Road weary Notre Dame (19-3, 7-1), playing a second consecutive home game for the first time since early December, is looking to get a lift from its freshmen, forward Erin Boley (6.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and guard Jackie Young (6.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg).

“This team definitely has another gear, and I think the freshmen will be a part of that,” ND head coach Muffet McGraw said on WSBT's Weekday SportsBeat. “Erin Boley is getting better every single game.

“And Jackie Young may be the best player on our team. She is somebody who has so much talent and so much potential, and we’re just waiting for her to really have kind of a breakout game.”

An injured thumb slowed Young at the season’s outset. The injury bug then became contagious. Starting junior forward Kathryn Westbeld is the latest to return from being sidelined, though her ankle was still a little gimpy in a 62-58 Irish win over Duke on Thursday night.

Reserve junior guard Mychal Johnson is the latest to leave the playing rotation, after suffering a shoulder injury early this past week. She will not play against Virginia. Because of injuries, only twice this season have all 11 Irish roster players been available.

Finishing games strong became a challenge during ND’s recently completed stretch of 10 road games in a 12-game stretch, something the Irish improved upon in the Duke victory.

“We’re a work in progress,” McGraw said. “I think that we knew that we were going to be young and look young. But I thought that we’d be a little bit smarter. When you looked at us, you saw a lot of players who played a lot of minutes, but the minutes that they played (last season) weren’t at the end of the games.

“We really relied on Michaela Mabrey, Madison Cable and Hannah Huffman to finish game for us, and we were just such a smart, tough team. And so this team is really learning. They’re growing.

“I think we’re seeing improvement. I’d like to see more improvement.”

After Sunday’s game, Notre Dame will recognize current assistant coach and former All-America player Beth Morgan Cunningham. The spark who led the Irish to their first Final Four in program history, in 1997, will join three other Notre Dame legends in the team’s Ring of Honor — Ruth Riley, Skylar Diggins and Niele Ivey.

“She has just done so much for us as a player and then as a coach,” McGraw said of Cunningham.

She’ll be challenged to help McGraw figure out a Virginia lineup that features five players averaging between 8.9 and 10.6 points a game. Not among that group and coming off the bench is 6-foot-9 freshman Felicia Aiyeotan, averaging 5.3 points and 3.9 rebounds.

“She can create problems for you inside,” McGraw said.

The Irish will counter with 6-3 junior Brianna Turner, coming off back-to-back double-doubles and who played 37 minutes in the win over Duke.

“I think I’m at a point in the season where I want to push the starters a little bit longer,” McGraw said. “We have a really great bench. We’re playing seven or eight people a lot of minutes, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to play 10.

“So I think we’re looking to kind of shorten the bench a little bit. We want to keep our foot on the pedal, and we want to play our best players as much as we can if possible.”

Notre Dame freshman Jackie Young (5) dishes out a pass around Duke’s Kendall Cooper (21) during ND's 62-58 victory, Thursday night at Purcell Pavilion. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)