Game rounding into shape for Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – Perched near the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 10-1 record is a lofty but tenuous place to be.

That is where the 22-3, No. 7-ranked Notre Dame women’s basketball team is, a step behind Florida State. The Seminoles are 11-1. If the Irish win their final five games a fourth consecutive ACC championship will be theirs.

Controlling their own destiny is “… a good place to be,” according to Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “Every game is important.”

An off day now could be costly. Should both teams win their final few games, the regular-season finale at home against the Seminoles will determine who wears the ACC crown.

Notre Dame is hardly at full strength.

An intense midweek practice included only seven healthy players. Kathryn Westbeld continues to nurse a gimpy ankle and practices sparingly, while Ali Patberg, Mychal Johnson and Diamond Thompson were not at practice with various illnesses or injuries.

All may be ready to contribute something Sunday except Johnson, who needs at least another week to recuperate from a shoulder injury.

Sunday’s battle at Purcell Pavilion will not only be a key ACC contest, it will be Notre Dame’s annual Pink Zone game to help raise funds for breast cancer research.

In addition, Sunday’s game will serve as a reunion of the 1997 Irish Final Four team, the first Notre Dame women’s team to reach the national semifinals.

Notre Dame defeated the Yellow Jackets (14-10, 3-8 ACC) earlier in the season, 55-38, in Atlanta – the fewest points Tech had scored at home since 2005.

Arike Ogunbowale led the Irish in scoring with 18 points in the first meeting and, with depth a potential issue, is likely to need another big game.

She has handled the bumps and shoves as she drives to the basket, but has been working hard to correct being over-aggressive and driving down low with nowhere to go.

“I still do it to a certain extent,” said Ogunbowale who leads the Irish at 15 points a game and has 40 turnovers this season. “But now when somebody comes up on me I realize someone else is open.”

The Milwaukee native is second in the ACC with her .442 shooting percentage from the 3-point line.

She earned the nickname "Instant Offense'' during her freshman season by going on regular scoring bursts.

But the 5-foot-9 Ogunbowale knows she has to intensify her defensive efforts.

“I am not there yet (defensively),'' she said. "I am making steps each game. The coaches will stay on me. With the coaches really getting on me I have seen some improvement from my freshman to sophomore year.”

Ogunbowale was named this week to the Naismith Award national watch list.

Westbeld, despite playing with pain from her bad ankle, has been a major contributor in each of the last few games, producing 15- and 14-point efforts the last two outings in limited minutes. In fact, she has been coming off the bench since her injury.

“That doesn’t bother me,” she said (about coming off the bench). “I get a different view from the bench. I can see mistakes and come in and try to correct them.”

Westbeld’s last game included a seven-for-eight shooting effort. Against Louisville, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Duke when the 6-2 junior entered the game, the offense really roared.

Westbeld leads all ACC players with a .609 shooting percentage.

The Yellow Jackets are struggling and have lost six of their last seven games, but did take NC State to overtime last Thursday before losing. NC State upset Notre Dame in the first league game of the year.

Tech is coached by Machelle Joseph, a 1992 Purdue grad, who has a 266-172 record and is now in her 14th year with the Yellow Jackets. Zaire O’Neil is the biggest individual weapon the Yellow Jackets have. The 5-11 junior averages 16.1 points.

Notre Dame scored only 55 in the earlier meeting at Georgia Tech.

“They played well defensively,” McGraw said. “It came after North Carolina State (an Irish upset loss) and we weren’t in our rhythm. We are playing a lot better now.”

Following Sunday’s tussle with Georgia Tech, Notre Dame faces its final two road games of the regular season – Thursday at Clemson and the following Monday in a crucial game at last year’s national runner-up Syracuse.

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale (24) drives around Louisville’s Asia Durr (25) and Cortnee Walton (13), February 6, 2017 in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

WHO: No. 7 Notre Dame (22-3, 10-1) vs. Georgia Tech (14-10, 3-8).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion, (9,149)

WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m.

TELEVISION: None

TICKETS: Available.

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