Lesar: Mychal Johnson could be x-factor in Notre Dame's NCAA Tournament run

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – She didn’t breathe fire like she has on occasion this season.

Muffet McGraw was just kinda fidgety.

That’s as good a way as any to describe the Notre Dame women’s basketball coach’s sideline demeanor during her team’s less-than-captivating 79-49 NCAA Tournament-opening win over Robert Morris Friday night.

This was a 1-seed vs. No. 16. Blowout right?

Well… Not quite.

The Irish played with a short bench. Kathryn Westbeld, a stabilizing influence in the most discombobulated of situations, was given the night off to rest a balky ankle.

Crouched like a catcher in front of her bench most of the night, McGraw's exasperation was obvious. Nothing seemed to flow.

Defense? That’s what caused the revolving door with the players who were available. Miss an assignment? See ya. Next.

Game’s over, 32.9 seconds left and the Irish are up by 30. What? A foul on freshman Erin Boley? C’mon.

Looked like McGraw’s bad cold escalated into a migraine on that play.

Fussing over a 30-point win is a place most coaches like to be. Trouble is, McGraw isn’t most coaches. Hall of Famers don’t happen because they let a less than dominating victory pass inspection without a measure of concern.

One down. For the next two days, the world will revolve around Purdue. The Irish will have to be better.

Looking for an “X” factor over the next three weeks? Keep an eye on Mychal Johnson. The 5-foot-7 junior guard is an answer to McGraw’s constant quest for someone who takes pride in a defensive job well done, and, for the first time since Jan. 22, appears to be healthy.

Johnson logged 16 minutes off the bench Friday night and had a 3-pointer from the corner to show in her stat line. However, it was her defensive pestering on Anna Niki Stamolamprou (6 of 20 shooting, 19 points) and Jalynn Burton-Jones (3 of 8 shooting, 7 points) that was Johnson’s most significant contribution.

In late January, Johnson was lost for five games with a right shoulder injury. She came back long enough to play six minutes against Clemson Feb. 16. In the next game against Syracuse, she went down with a sprained left ankle while on the court for just two minutes.

That injury also caused her to miss five games.

That’s why she was so excited to hit the floor against the Colonials.

“I’ve been practicing a lot; it wasn’t hard to get back in the flow,” Johnson said. “I was too excited to worry about the mental part of it. I just wanted to play again.”

Johnson brings a veteran perspective to the most significant time of the season. Having been through the ups of a trip to the Final Four two years ago, and the shock of a Sweet 16 departure last season, she has a pretty good idea of what to expect.

“It’s important to talk to the underclassmen and let them know how important this is to us,” Johnson said.

Even a 30-point win over a 16-seed is appreciated. Win and advance is more than a motto, it’s a key to survival. Gotta throw in “get better” in there somewhere. Understanding and embracing the defensive aspects of the game is the quickest way to maintain the upper hand this time of year.

“It gets our team going,” Johnson said of the defense. “When we’re doing well on the defensive end, we’re running on the offensive end. I take pride in helping my teammates out.”

“She’s such a defensive presence,” said Irish assistant coach Beth Cunningham, in charge of the wings. “She’s always been one of our best on-ball and off-ball defenders. She’s somebody we can count on.

“You always need defenders. She gives us a veteran presence that is so valuable.”

Could she help McGraw be a little less fidgety the rest of the way?

Nah, probably not.

Notre Dame’s Mychal Johnson (14) dishes out a pass during the Notre Dame vs. Robert Morris NCAA Division 1 tournament game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend Friday, March 17, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA