Notre Dame women tightening perimeter defense for stretch run

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

There was plenty of sweat dripping on the floor at Notre Dame’s women’s basketball practice Wednesday.

That intense practice and hard work is what coach Muffet McGraw feels is essential as her team continues its drive toward a fourth consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

The seventh-ranked Irish (20-3) will see if their labor, with a special focus on defense, reaps dividends Thursday night when they travel to meet Virginia Tech (16-5).

Study the stats for just a few minutes and the problem is obvious. Notre Dame ranks dead last in the ACC, giving up 3-pointers at a 36 percent clip. Defending the perimeter has become a priority.

“We are trying to really get them to get out and pick up the ball – get out in the passing lanes more,” said McGraw. “We have been laying back a little bit too much. So we are working on being more aggressive on defense. It will take time to form habits. We need to work on our help rotation.”

Ali Patberg, a sophomore guard who missed all of last season after a knee injury, is one of the young players that has made significant progress as a defender.

“Defense is what we need,” said Patberg. “We are going to have to make stops when it comes down to that.”

She get plenty of advice from McGraw.

“I have to remember she is a freshman (in playing time)," McGraw said of Patberg. "I'm really hard on her; probably harder on her than anybody. I guess it's because she is a point guard and I expect her to just know everything.”

Patberg can handle the heat and the sweat. She is no stranger to adversity and work after sitting out a year and going through the arduous rehab.

“I feel like I'm moving a lot better now," Patberg said. "I watched last year and got to see how everything works. I'm connecting seeing it with doing it, and it's translating a lot more now.”

Not only is Patberg performing well defensively, she is picking things up offensively as well.

After going more than 60 minutes on the floor without even taking a shot, the guard then hit five of eight shots in her next two games.

“Offensively, I understand the flow of the game," she said. "When I was coming in for only two minutes, I don’t think taking a shot is the best thing to do. When I had more time out there, I was able to get into the flow of things and let the game come to me. When I was open I took it.”

The finance major enjoyed the games she got extended playing time.

“Being in there felt great. I wasn't tired,” she said.

McGraw wants to see Patberg run the team.

“She's really smart," McGraw said. "I'm just picky on every little thing. I need to be more patient with her and give her a chance to be in the game without (senior point guard) Lindsay (Allen). That’s what I will try to do the next couple of games, give her a couple of minutes running the team.”

The Irish will need Patberg and the rest of their talented roster. At 16-5, Virginia Tech — which lost to Virginia by 49 points a week ago — can be a problem. The Hokies started the season 15-0 and are struggling now.

Kathryn Westbeld is questionable for the game with her tender ankle. Mychal Johnson, an early in the season defensive specialist for the Irish, will be sidelined a couple of weeks with a shoulder injury.

Freshman Erin Boley is likely to get the start in Westbeld’s place

Most times, when the going has gotten tough, the Irish have relied on their offense.

Marina Mabrey has been impressive recently, leading the team in scoring in three of the last five games. Mabrey is who the Irish want to have the ball in late, close games because of her free-throw accuracy. She is fourth in the ACC in all games, shooting 87 percent from the line. Jackie Young has been lights out also at the free-throw line, making 18 of 19 shots in ACC games.

Despite the injuries, McGraw is happy with her players.

“We have a really good bench," said McGraw. "Ali, Jackie and (Kristina Nelson) are really good players coming off the bench. They just have to be ready."

So too does Notre Dame, still tied atop the ACC standings at 8-1 with Florida State.

Duke’s Oderah Chidom (22) dishes out a pass around Notre Dame’s Kathryn Westbeld (33) during the Duke at Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

WHO: No. 7 Notre Dame (20-3, 8-1) vs. Virginia Tech (16-5, 3-5).

WHERE: Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, Va.

WHEN: Thursday at 7 pm.

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 Virginia Tech, 8-1. . . The Hokies are coached by Kenny Brooks, who is in his first season at Virginia Tech after posting a 337-122 record at James Madison. . . Brooks is a former player at James Madison and was coached three years by the legendary Lefty Driesell. . . The Hokies are balanced offensively with four players scoring in double figures. . . Chanette Hicks, a 5-6 sophomore leads the way at 15.9, with 6-2 senior Sidney Cook next at 14.0. A 6-3 sophomore, Regan Magarity follows at 13.3. She grabs a team-leading 10 rebounds a game. And 5-10 senior Samantha Hill is the fourth double-figure scorer at 10.1. . . Notre Dame’s top scorer is Brianna Turner at 14.9, followed by Arike Ogunbowale at 14.7 and Marina Mabrey at 13.5.