Notre Dame women's basketball ramps up work, braces for Vols

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — The boys are back in town — and the girls are counting on being better for it.

The Notre Dame women’s basketball team regained its men’s practice players Monday after about a month without them due to winter break.

The male students arrived just as the No. 5-ranked Irish (16-2) began preparing for a nationally televised showdown against No. 6 Tennessee (16-1) on Thursday at Purcell Pavilion.

While coach Muffet McGraw and multiple players have trumpeted a “no excuses” mantra on the heels of ND being down to seven healthy scholarship players, and have pointed out in slightly varying manners that “it only takes five” on the court during a game, they’re also conceding that a trio of season-ending injuries since October can’t help but compromise preparation for those games.

“I think the best thing is having our guy practice players back,” McGraw said Wednesday of what’s on the uptick for the Irish as they continue to distance themselves from last week’s 100-67 lackluster loss to now-No. 2 Louisville.

“We really couldn’t challenge ourselves during the break,” McGraw said. “We only have 10 people anyway (three of them walk-ons), so it was really difficult for us to imagine what the other team was going to be like. So scouting was really challenging.

“Now we have the guys back,” McGraw continued, “so we have a lot more intensity in practice.”

“I mean, they’re some of the best practice players in the country,” junior guard Arike Ogunbowale said of the men, “so they really help us depict the teams we’re going to play. We’re playing against good teams, so to have good practice players, it really helps us.”

The next of those good teams, to understate goodness, arrives in the form of the Vols.

In fact, it’s no stretch to deduce that Tennessee will be the top team Notre Dame gets to face at home this season.

Matchups with No. 1 Connecticut, the No. 2 Cardinals, then-No. 3 (now No. 10) South Carolina and the three other opponents who were ranked at least at the time of the meetings have all been away from home.

Further, ND’s two remaining games against currently rated teams besides Tennessee — No. 12 Florida State and No. 15 Duke — will both be on the road.

“I’m just excited to be home, and to be able to play a big game at home in front of our fans,” Ogunbowale said of a contest that’s expected to flirt with being ND’s first home sellout of the season.

As of early Wednesday evening, seats remained available in some, but not all, price classifications.

“It’s always great to be at home because our fans really motivate us,” said McGraw, whose club is seeking its 18th straight home victory. “They inspire us, they know when to stand when we really need 'em, and we’re going to need 'em for 40 minutes during this game.”

The Vols’ lone loss this season came in overtime last week at No. 16 Texas A&M, 79-76, and they bounced back from it with an 86-70 road win over South Carolina. The Gamecocks did play minus All-American A’ja Wilson due to an ankle injury.

Tennessee is led by a pair of Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 candidates in 6-foot-6 senior Mercedes Russell and 6-2 senior Jaime Nared, who are dividing 34.8 points and 17.3 rebounds about evenly.

“They’re really good,” offered Ogunbowale, who played with both on the USA U23 team last summer and is likewise on the Wooden midseason list.

The Vols also are starting a pair of freshmen in point guard Evina Westbrook and forward Rennia Davis, and giving starter-like minutes to freshman Anastasia Hayes.

All three are averaging in double digits, and all three were rated among ESPN’s top 12 in the high school class of 2017, paced by Westbrook at No. 2.

“They’re really athletic,” McGraw said of Tennessee. “They’re long, they can block shots (averaging 5.2 as a team), they’re a great defensive team, they can score at a lot of positions. Really, you can’t lay off anybody.”

“They like to run in transition,” Ogunbowale added. “They get up in your face on defense and they’re just a good all-around team.”

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, right, yells to players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Boston College, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

WHO: No. 6 Tennessee (16-1) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (16-2).

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

WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $7 to $20.

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

NOTING: Host Tennessee took last year’s meeting 71-69 on Jaime Nared’s 15-foot jumper with 10 seconds to go. It ended ND’s run of six straight wins over the Vols, those six coming after Tennessee — the gold standard in women’s basketball much of that time — won the first 20 meetings between the programs … This season marks the first time since at least 1977-78 that the Vols have had the same starting lineup for all of their first 17 games. … Nared’s averaging 17.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 steals. Fellow senior Mercedes Russell is at 17.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. Nared shoots just 39 percent from the field (with 17 3-pointers), but Russell’s at 63.7 percent. … Each of ND’s last three outings has yielded at least a 20-point margin by halftime. The Irish led Georgia Tech 48-18 on the way to a win, trailed Louisville 56-28 on the way to a 100-67 loss and most recently were ahead of Boston College 42-22 on the way to rolling 89-60. 

QUOTING: “I just want to see the fight back. I want to see us compete on every possession, for every loose ball, for every rebound, and I think that’s what we've gotta focus on. Every possession matters.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on what she hopes to see against Tennessee.