Irish eyes shift to Sunday's clash for Notre Dame women's hoops team with Clemson

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — You might not believe what Marina Mabrey was thinking about as Notre Dame was completing its comeback for the ages against a program for the ages.

It’s something the junior point guard insisted crossed her mind as she was helping dig the Irish out of their 23-point hole, and as she was digging deep to play all 40 minutes.

It’s something that even the potential beneficiaries of her thought probably weren’t thinking about during this numbing reversal of the inevitable, this rally that would result in the greatest come-from-behind victory in Notre Dame women’s basketball history.

When Mabrey swished her 3-pointer from the left corner to put the Irish up 68-65 on Thursday against visiting Tennessee — the basket that gave ND its first lead since two minutes into the night — she burst into a smile that spoke unconquerable jubilation.

Mabrey usually doesn’t break away from her game face while a game’s still in place, and besides that, her bucket had produced merely a three-point lead with still 5:03 to go.

“I knew we were only going to keep going,” Mabrey explained Saturday after practice of her reaction.

“We’d already said that we wanted to try to get to 88 (points) and get free Big Macs for our fans,” she added of a standing promotion ND offers at home games, “so we had a long way to go, but I felt that if we kept playing the way we were playing, we were going to win the game after (that shot).”

Whoa. Wait a minute.

Sandwiches? You were thinking about sandwiches? Seriously?

“Yeah, for sure, always am,” Mabrey said with another smile Saturday.

The fifth-ranked Irish did not get to 88, winning 84-70 over No. 6 Tennessee, but good luck finding an ND fan in Purcell Pavilion who cared.

For their own parts, as memory-making as their victory was, players were relatively low-key about it Saturday as they prepared for their next contest, Sunday’s 1 p.m. visit by Clemson.

“I think we expected to win the game, so it was nice to have the comeback like that and get such a glorifield win, but we have to move on,” Mabrey said. “We have a lot more wins we have to get.”

“Yeah, a little,” sophomore guard Jackie Young said Saturday of whether she was still pinching herself over Thursday, “but we got off to a bad start, and we’ve done that all season. We just have to be able to come out like we did the second half at the beginning of the game, and I think that’s what we’re going to do moving forward.”

Zoned in

Young and Mabrey were each quick to point to their team’s defense as the culprit for Thursday’s huge deficit, but were also quick to acknowledge that there’s been some learning going on lately with the move toward more zone.

“We’re getting better at being aggressive in it,” Mabrey said. “For a while, we were still trying to figure out how we could be aggressive while still playing zone. We like playing man because it’s easier — you can just go after the ball and the person you’re guarding — but with how many players we have, we have to play zone.”

The Irish are down to seven healthy scholarship players after Lili Thompson became the latest to be sidelined for the season on Dec. 31.

Coach Muffet McGraw has cited the zone as a way to combat potential foul trouble for her shrunken roster and to limit the chasing that comes with man-to-man.

“The coaches really worked with us prior to the Tennessee game on how we can still be active (in the zone), be a lot more active with our hands, make it hard for them to get the ball inside, and I think it showed Thursday,” Young said. “I think before then, we were just kind of laid back in our zone, but we know we can be more active in it.”

In fact, the Irish matched a season high with 15 steals, the other occasion coming in the season opener against overmatched Mount St. Mary’s.

The 28 turnovers committed by Tennessee (16-2) were its most all season and were 11.1 more than its average heading in.

“We started playing aggressively, getting to the passing lanes,” Mabrey said, “but that’s how we’re supposed to play all the time. The first 15 minutes was not us, was not our zone. Some people thought we changed our defense, but we didn’t.”

As strong as ND was at taking the ball away, the Vols still finished the night at 57 percent from the field when they kept it, and the Irish still finished knowing there’s more work ahead.

“It’s the same reason every time,” Mabrey lamented of why the Irish have fallen behind in an assortment of games. “We don’t play any defense. When we decide to play defense, it’s a whole different game.”

Tennessee talk

To review just a bit more on ND’s record-setting win, not only did the Irish trail by a high of 37-14 at seven minutes to go in the second quarter, but they were still down 53-37 with four minutes to go in the third — a decidedly steeper margin at least in terms of time left to make it up.

What those counts mean is Notre Dame outscored Tennessee 70-37 over the final 27 minutes of the game and 47-17 over the final 14.

The Irish, after trailing 65-58, also outscored the Vols 26-5 over the final seven minutes, with runs of 12-0 and 14-0.

Conversely, Tennessee had registered two double-digit runs in a single quarter during the first period, 10-0 and 11-0.

Tiger talk

Clemson’s coming off some favorable drama of its own as it looks to upset Notre Dame.

The Tigers (11-8, 1-5 ACC), who have been playing in the ACC for 41 years, registered their first-ever multi-overtime league victory when they beat Boston College 65-61 in double OT on Thursday.

“I think they can be a great team and last year was a close game,” Young said of ND’s 84-80 road win over Clemson. “We have to be ready and get off to a good start.”

Like Notre Dame, the Tigers have battled injuries. Most notably, Nelly Perry is redshirting this season with a shoulder injury after leading Clemson a year ago at 12.7 points and 2.9 assists per game.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Clemson (11-8, 1-5 ACC) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (17-2, 5-1).

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

WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACC Network Extra.

NOTING: Junior guard Danielle Edwards is the only Clemson player averaging in double digits at 10.3 points per game, though sophomores Jaia Alexander (9.8) and Kobi Thornton (9.3) are right behind. Edwards is also at 2.8 steals and is an 86 percent free throw shooter. The 6-2 Thornton leads the team in rebounds (7.0), assists (2.7) and blocks (1.7). Nine players are at 17.5 to 30.4 minutes each for the Tigers. Clemson’s shooting just 39 percent on 2-pointers and 23 percent on 3-pointers, but is 11th in the nation in overall field-goal defense at 34.6. … Irish scoring leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (20.1), Jessica Shepard (15.0), Jackie Young (14.0) and Marina Mabrey (12.8). Over her last four games, the surging Mabrey is also averaging 5.8 assists and 4.3 steals. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series with Clemson 4-0. Last year’s 84-80 road win was the first one decided by less than 19 points.

QUOTING: “The difference in the game was our defense. We played great defense in the second half. We got deflections, we got steals, we got rebounds, and that got us into our transition game. I thought we attacked the rim a lot better in the second half. We got better shots and occasionally we were able to hit a 3 (with Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey each finishing the night 3-of-5 outside the arc).” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, after the comeback win over Tennessee

Notre Dame's Marina Mabrey (3) gets pressure from Tennessee's Evina Westbrook (2) during ND's epic comeback victory, 84-40, Thursday at Purcell Pavilion. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)