Lesar: Corners left for Notre Dame women's basketball to turn

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Maybe it wasn’t quite a corner that got turned Thursday night, but at least there were a few steps in the right direction.

For the first time in this Atlantic Coast Conference season, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team demolished a team it was supposed to clobber.

The Irish stepped on the gas – let up in the third quarter long enough to cost the crowd of 8,376 a Big Mac (by not scoring 88 points) – then punished Boston College, 82-45.

Have to be pretty picky to find anything wrong with this particular performance – except going the first 4:09 of the third quarter without scoring a point. It’s not like the Eagles suddenly rose to the challenge. They’re ACC bottom-feeders for a reason.

But hey, the Irish have to have something to work on in practice leading up to Sunday’s regular-season finale – and battle for the outright claim to the ACC regular-season title – with Florida State.

This is a time for more of a big-picture analysis of the state of the Irish.

More troubling than anything that happened Thursday night were Notre Dame’s two games leading up to it. Both victories on the road, the Irish gave up 80 points to Clemson – another ACC doormat – and Syracuse. The Orange was able to score an amazing 30 points in the first quarter.

Those numbers shouldn’t fly this late in the season.

The Irish rank 106th (out of 345) in the country in scoring defense (61.5 points a game). Four times during ACC play they’ve allowed more points than the opponent’s offensive average – Clemson 80 (59.3 average), Wake Forest 72 (65.0), Virginia 74 (64.6) and Boston College the first meeting 69 (58.9).

“I wonder if we would have beaten Syracuse if we hadn’t had that close game at Clemson,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “We learned a lot of things that we didn’t do as well at the end of the game.

“We didn’t execute at the end of the (Clemson) game. The Syracuse game, we ran better stuff, we got some free throws. We missed them, but we got what we wanted.

“Defensively, we didn’t do our job in either game, but we learned from it. Coming off of those games and seeing how we handled the pressure, everybody knows they have something to work on.”

Slowly but surely, players like sophomore Arike Ogunbowale and freshmen Jackie Young and Erin Boley are starting to get the hang of what’s expected of them on defense. At least they’re in the vicinity of players they’re supposed to be guarding – an improvement from earlier.

It’s a complicated scheme premised on a lot of switching and communication. With Boston College putting up such a feeble effort (3 of 32 shooting in the second half), it was difficult to quantify the improvement the Irish might have made since the precarious road wins.

“It’s more understanding; it’s more us just finding a way,” Notre Dame senior point guard Lindsay Allen said of the progress that she has seen. “In that Clemson game and that Syracuse game, we just found a way to win. We were exploiting what the other team gave us.”

Still, after 29 games this season, the best 40 seconds of defense was Allen’s all-out assault on Duke star Lexie Brown to preserve a four-point victory on Jan. 26.

Nothing before or since has come close. If the Irish could, somehow, come up with that sort of an effort as a team – for just five minutes in each game – they wouldn’t lose a game the rest of the way.

Guaranteed. UConn included.

“It takes intensity and mental toughness; you have to fight through fatigue,” Allen said of what it takes to play defense like that on a regular basis. “It’s hard to play 30 seconds of intensity like that. We have to help each other out and trust each other.”

But, the Irish still need to get better.

There are a couple corners out there to be turned.

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale (24) looks over at her teammates on the bench as Ali Patberg (20) and Erin Boley (22) help her up from the floor, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ