'Adaptable' Notre Dame women's hoops team faces surging Syracuse

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — It’s finally time to talk conference, except that Notre Dame doesn’t talk it much.

“We really don’t,” Irish women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw said Wednesday afternoon following practice as her team prepared for Thursday’s Atlantic Coast Conference opener against visiting Syracuse. “It is important, but I think (the players) know the importance of it, and they know we’ve been successful.”

Saying ND has been successful in conference is an understatement along the lines of saying McGraw’s won a few college basketball games. She’s won 864.

Perennial title contenders as well in the Big East before switching leagues, the Irish have been pure trophy hogs since joining the ACC in 2013-14.

They’ve won all four regular-season titles and added all four ACC Tournament titles.

If they can earn that double a fifth straight time, they’ll surpass Duke’s 2000-01 to 2003-04 teams for most consecutive ACC sweeps.

“I don’t remember what the exact (streak) is, but it’s definitely something we want to take care of,” preseason All-ACC pick Arike Ogunbowale said Wednesday.

The first step in taking care of it is not shaping up as easy — between yet another injury and a surging Syracuse (12-1) coming to town — but then, nothing has been easy for No. 2-ranked Notre Dame (11-1) this season.

Jessica Shepard suffered an ankle sprain Tuesday in practice and was walking with a pronounced limp near the end of Wednesday’s team workout.

“She’s questionable, a game-time decision,” McGraw said of the club’s top rebounder.

That’s exactly how the coach described Shepard going into ND’s last game, too.

The junior forward did end up playing in that 91-85 overtime victory over Marquette on Dec. 20 — contributing 13 points and 12 rebounds — but that appearance came three days after sustaining an ankle turn. Thursday’s, if it happens, will come just two days after a repeat setback.

“We’ve had injuries all season,” Ogunbowale declared of a team missing three players this winter due to torn ACLs, “so I think we’re pretty adaptable.”

While the star junior guard and McGraw were both hesitant to talk ACC title-chasing as a whole Wednesday, both also mentioned, unsolicited, how the Irish started league play last season.

“Last year, we came out on a bad note,” Ogunbowale said of that No. 2-rated ND team’s stunning 70-62 loss at unranked North Carolina State, “so we want to come out strong this first game.”

“We have a lot of challenges ahead, but we’ve really got to focus on this one,” McGraw said. “The first game’s really important. We went to NC State and lost that one.”

Even though the Irish did lose that one, they recovered handily. They still wound up 15-1 in the league, two games ahead of co-runners-up Duke and Florida State at 13-3.

Overall, ND is now a gaudy 62-2 in ACC regular-season action to go with its 12-0 in ACC Tournament play. The Irish are also a perfect 32-0 in ACC play at home.

Nevertheless, 2017-18 is shaping up as possibly ND’s most sizable challenge yet in the league.

Among ACC teams, Louisville (14-0) is right behind the Irish in the Associated Press rankings at No. 3, Florida State (11-1) is No. 13 and Duke (10-2) is No. 14.

As it so happens, Notre Dame will have to play all three of those teams on the road only in a 15-team league that features primarily single-game matchups.

“It’s going to be a really challenging year,” McGraw said.

Starting with the Orange. Though not ranked in the AP poll, Syracuse is No. 23 in the coaches’ poll.

“They’re a high-energy defensive team,” the coach said. “They like to press, (with) all different kinds of presses. They’re very aggressive defensively.”

“They’re zone and man,” said Ogunbowale, who leads the Irish at 20.8 points per game. “They switch it up a lot, so we just have to be ready to talk and repeat to each other what Coach says. It’s going to be loud in here, so we have to talk.”

Syracuse’s only loss this season came last week against No. 5 Mississippi State (13-0), a 76-65 decision that was part of an invitational in Las Vegas.

The Orange feature the nation’s assist leader in crafty Tiana Mangakahia, a 5-foot-6 sophomore from Australia who arrived by way of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.

“She’s terrific,” McGraw said of Mangakahia, averaging 10.8 assists to go with 16.0 points and 2.6 steals, countered by 4.6 turnovers. “She’s just got great vision, a great sense of where everybody is and how to get people the ball.”

Miranda Drummond, a 6-1 redshirt junior who sat out last season after transferring from St. Bonaventure, leads Syracuse at 17.3 points per game, while sophomore Gabrielle Cooper is at 11.7 points.

Those two have combined to hit 70-of-195 on 3-pointers for 35.9 percent, but the rest of the team is just 50-of-221 for 22.6 percent.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Syracuse (12-1) vs. No. 2 Notre Dame (11-1).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACC Network Extra.

TV: None.

NOTING: Syracuse, a team with no seniors in its regular rotation, is paced by national assist leader Tiana Mangakahia at 10.8 per game. The sophomore from Australia is also averaging 16.0 points and 2.6 steals. Junior Miranda Drummond is at 17.3 points and 6.9 rebounds, and sophomore Gabrielle Cooper 11.7 points and 6.6 boards. Digna Strautmane, a 6-2 freshman from Latvia, is averaging 8.6 points, 8.2 boards and 2.7 blocks. … The Orange are among the nation’s leaders in 3-point attempts (32) and makes (9.2) per game, but are just 247th of 345 Division I teams in percentage at 28.8. … Irish leaders included Arike Ogunbowale (20.8 points per game), Jessica Shepard (15.1 ppg, 8.6 rebounds, but questionable for Thursday due to an ankle injury), Jackie Young (13.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Marina Mabrey (12.0 ppg). Kathryn Westbeld is adding 10.3 ppg and 6.0 rpg over her last three outings. … Notre Dame has won 18 straight over Syracuse, its last loss coming in 2001-02, and is 15-0 all-time at home against the Orange. … Syracuse is averaging 4.7 fewer turnovers per contest than its opponents on the season (13.8 to 18.5), while in its last three games, ND is coughing up 5.3 more than its opponents (19.3 to 14.0).

QUOTING: “We worked on it (Wednesday) in practice quite a bit, but we just have to make a point of taking care of the ball, making the passes. … We’re just not being smart with the ball. We know how to pass through pressure, we work on it in practice. We just have to transfer that over to the game.” — Arike Ogunbowale, Notre Dame guard, on the team’s recent increase in turnovers.

Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale, center, competes for the ball with DePaul's Kelly Campbell (20) during an Irish win, Dec. 17 at Purcell Pavilion. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)