Lesar: Demolishing Florida State proves Notre Dame women can be special

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Check all the boxes.

Sunday, in a convincing 79-61 victory over Florida State, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team proved itself ready for the postseason.

It may have been the first time all year that the Irish looked like a legitimate No. 1 seed, when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. Bring on UConn, Maryland or Baylor. The Notre Dame team that demolished the Seminoles, that spent most of the season among the elite, won’t be flustered by any of them.

This was one of the corners that had to be turned.

Now, all the Irish have to do is bottle it for use in the next nine games.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw admitted to feeling joy, while soaking in the jubilance of her program’s fourth straight Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title.

Talk about rare.

This game had it all. Star power wasn’t lacking.

Florida State star post Shakayla Thomas came back after missing a couple games with an injury to her left shoulder. The 5-foot-11 junior leaper (10 points, 3 rebounds), who seemed pretty healthy except for looking uncomfortable on a lefthanded layup, went head-to-head with Notre Dame’s 6-3 Brianna Turner (24 points, 6 rebounds, 5 blocks).

“(Thomas) is a phenomenal athlete,” said McGraw. “She can dunk. I thought it was player of the year (candidate) against player of the year (candidate).

“I was happy to see Bri go up and block her because (Thomas has) had a tremendous year. She’s a big reason why Florida State is as good as they are.”

“(Thomas) is one of the most athletic people I’ve faced in the ACC,” said Turner. “It’s always great to go against athletic people. We were really excited for this game.”

Though she downplayed it a bit, the competitor in Turner had to feel good about getting a hand on one of Thomas’ shots down low late in the game. It sent a message.

“She drove in,” Turner recalled. “I just wanted to make sure I didn’t foul her. I contested it and was able to get a hand on it.”

Then she smiled.

Turner has been getting a hand on a lot of shots lately. In the last five games, she has swatted 20 shots – not to mention the attempts she has either altered or discouraged. Ama Degbeon, Florida State’s 6-2 center, stopped trying after a while. She had two good looks from six feet that she turned her back on because of Turner’s presence.

“It’s exciting for me,” Turner said of instilling that fear and respect. “I just try to be there, contest the shots and block when I can – just helping out my teammates.

“I’m doing a better job of waiting until (the shooters) leave their feet. Before, I was going for the shot fakes, then get called for the easy foul.”

“(Turner is) the best defensive player in the conference,” said McGraw. “She should be the defensive player of the year; probably player of the year, too.

“Bri is somebody that … Our guards don’t have to foul as much, because they know if someone gets past them, Bri can help them out.”

Even considering a 10-0 Florida State run that closed the Irish lead to nine early in the fourth quarter, this was a special effort. Any letdowns in the tournament? Pop in this tape to straighten it out.

Heck, even Arike Ogunbowale played defense, to go along with 19 points. When the 5-8 sophomore guard can put three steals, five rebounds and a block on her stat line, that’s significant progress.

The message may have gotten through.

“Before the game, coach asked me who I wanted to guard,” said Ogunbowale, while smiling at McGraw. “I said, ‘It’s up to you.’ I promised her I would guard. I did that, so I didn’t go back on my promise.”

It may have taken 30 games, but Notre Dame finally showed it could be something special.

It’s a team with plenty of promise.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) looks for a shot in front of Florida State’s Brittany Brown (12) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame won 79-61. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN