Lesar: Can Erin Boley deliver big again for Notre Dame women's basketball?

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Shooting is her bread and butter.

Defense, though, keeps Erin Boley in the game.

Lately, rebounding has had to fit into the equation.

Boley, a 6-foot-2 freshman who grew up about a 90-minute drive from Rupp Arena, is one of the primary chess pieces coach Muffet McGraw has used to re-work the Notre Dame women’s basketball team sans 6-3 post Brianna Turner.

Boley made her coach look like a genius Friday night in a 23-point Sweet 16 thumping of Ohio State.

Fourteen points (one shy of a career high), a career-high nine boards and a career-high 27 minutes of playing time.

McGraw was nothing short of impressed.

“A lot of times, I worry when a kid goes home because they’re trying too hard to impress their family and friends,” McGraw said. “I was just so proud of her because she was able to relax.”

“(Boley has) always been pretty level-headed,” Irish assistant Beth Cunningham said.

About 20 folks in a very sparse crowd of just over 3,000 in the massive arena, made a lot of noise every time their favorite player, Boley, did something good.

They must have been as tired as Boley was after the game.

“I play my best game when I’m loose,” Boley said. “It has a lot to do with being prepared. The coaches did a great job having me prepared for the role I was going to have to step up and play. I felt confident.”

Now, all Boley and her teammates have to do is come up with an encore for Sunday’s NCAA Regional championship against No. 2 seed Stanford (noon, ESPN). Somehow, the top-seeded Irish will have to rekindle the intensity and make the magic that allowed six players to score in double figures against the Buckeyes in Notre Dame’s new post-challenged approach.

The Irish will need to catch their breath after a demanding test with a six-player rotation against Ohio State, while Stanford players must fight against nature and their body clocks in the early (EDT, 9 a.m. PDT) tip-off.

Boley, much more comfortable on the perimeter, has been “loaned” to the posts in this emergency situation. Thanks to her solid frame and re-focused attitude — and “smarts,” embodied in her selection to the Atlantic Coast Conference All-Academic team (a 3.38 GPA in Business/Design) — Boley’s transition to the new role seemed seamless.

“The mental part has helped with everything that’s been thrown at me this year,” Boley said. “I’ve become a smarter basketball player.”

While Boley has had to muscle-up inside on defense more than usual, taking on much bigger and more physical athletes than in the past, she creates a significant matchup problem on the perimeter. Posts aren’t comfortable venturing outside the paint, trying to stop someone who shoots 3-pointers for a living (44 of 112, 39 percent).

“The post isn’t something new to me,” Boley said. “I played it some in high school. You’re going against the strongest and the tallest. It’s something you have to be smart about.”

Overall, Boley shoots 44 percent from the field (81 of 191), and averages 6.4 points and 2.9 rebounds.

“Offensively, we know she’s going to knock shots down,” Cunningham said. “She just had to tighten some things up defensively and do a great job on the boards. She had to put herself in a position where she could stay on the floor.”

Figuring out how to stay engaged has been easier since the start of the new year. The early growing pains weren’t easily resolved.

“Coming back after Christmas, things started to trend upward for (Boley),” Cunningham said. “She started to figure her role out a little bit.

“It’s hard for a freshman. You’re a little bit homesick; the demands of being in a real tough academic environment at Notre Dame … You’re coming out of high school as the national player of the year … It takes time to figure out what your role is.

“There’s a tendency, when you go through that adversity, to question a little bit. She figured out how to battle through adversity.”

“There have been ups and downs this season,” Boley said. “It’s been a slow process, but it’s slowly gotten better as the year has gone on.”

Games aren’t won on shooting alone anymore. More goes into the total package.

The Irish won’t surprise anyone Sunday. Their plan is set. Boley’s secret is out.

Can she do it again?

Notre Dame’s Erin Boley (22) drives in front of Purdue’s Dominique McBryde (20) during a second-round game in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 19, 2017, in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame won 88-82. (Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin)