Lesar: Searching for a killer instinct from Notre Dame women's basketball

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Somewhere between good and special is the ambiguous concept of a killer instinct.

That may be the tightrope that Notre Dame's women’s basketball team will be walking during the lead-up to the NCAA Tournament.

How badly do the Irish want it?

It’s hard to quantify the concept, but it’s obvious when a team has it and when it doesn’t. If pressed to put a face on “killer instinct,” think Skylar Diggins. Remember that scowl she wore at crunch time? It was a “give me the ball and get out of my way” look.

That’s a killer instinct, something Diggins always had. That attitude made its way through every team on which she played.

Probably the best – but very unscientific – barometer for the desire to put an opponent away may be second-half performance. It’s the time when the situation has been assessed, and the pedal has to hit the metal.

Sunday’s 90-69 victory over Georgia Tech was the 17th time this season Notre Dame has added to its halftime differential. That still leaves nine games (five in the ACC), three of which were losses – Connecticut (tied at halftime), Tennessee (leading by 13) and North Carolina State (trailing by six) – in which the Irish took steps backward in the final 20 minutes.

That’s gotta be a concern for coach Muffet McGraw.

“We have a couple people that have it,” McGraw said of the killer instinct. “Not everybody yet. The freshmen are still learning. Practices are becoming more competitive. We’re trying to force them to be competitive.”

Sunday’s win was a step in the right direction, but hardly a giant leap against a quality team. This was a Georgia Tech team in the bottom third of the ACC standings. Notre Dame scored 58 points in the paint and missed six rather easy layups as well.

There wasn’t much resistance in the interior.

So when the Irish turned a nine-point halftime lead into a 21-point victory, it’s not quite time to declare them fit for a long postseason run. The last time these teams met, Jan. 2, Notre Dame held the Yellow Jackets to 38 points in a 17-point win. Georgia Tech had 39 at halftime Sunday.

“(Killer instinct) means being aggressive; not just offensively, but defensively,” said Notre Dame post Brianna Turner. “(It’s) just having that attitude that nobody’s going to stop you out there.”

Turner had 21 points, nine boards and five blocks to back up 25 points by Marina Mabrey.

“Coming into the locker room at halftime, improving on that (is important); it’s a matter of listening, learning, then taking it out to the floor,” Turner said. “We always talk about extending a lead. It’s been building (with this team). Getting more consistent with it (is a key).”

Wise words. Consistency can go a long way toward nurturing a team’s killer instinct and eliminating the doubt that goes along with not knowing what to expect about an opponent.

Like holding it to 38 points for the game more than a month ago, or allowing 39 in the first half Sunday.

No wonder McGraw admitted to some sleepless nights over the current state of the program.

There’s nothing she detests more than not knowing what she’s going to get out of her team in any given game.

McGraw wants to take the ambiguous out of the concept.

And boil it down to a consistent killer instinct.

Notre Dame Head Coach Muffet McGraw signals to her team form the sidelines against Louisville during the first half, Monday, February 6, 2017 in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ