Florida State pushing for big crowd in clash with Notre Dame women

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — In its quest to give Notre Dame fits, Florida State is practically giving away tickets.

Not that the Irish mind. Crank those turnstiles, they say.

“I think it’s great for us to get that experience,” ND junior forward Jessica Shepard said Saturday of the Seminoles seeking a single-game home attendance record in Sunday’s 4 p.m. nationally televised showdown of top-eight women’s basketball teams.

“We played at UConn, which was a very hostile environment, and also at Louisville,” Shepard said of crowds this season that numbered 15,564 and 12,614, “so I think for us, it’s just focusing on ourselves and not getting caught up in what they’re trying to do.”

What No. 8 Florida State (18-2, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) is trying to do is knock off No. 5 Notre Dame (19-2, 7-1) for the first time ever.

What FSU officials are trying to do is coax in a record crowd to witness it at the Tucker Center in Tallahassee.

Tickets are just $1. As of Thursday evening, about 6,000 were already sold in an effort to surpass the mark of 6,687 set last season for a game against Duke.

“I think we have a big target on our back, (but) I certainly hope they have a big crowd,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday. “I think we play better in front of a big crowd. I don’t think we’re intimidated by the crowd. I think it’s more fun to play in front of a crowd than to play in front of an empty gym.”

Historically, Florida State hasn’t drawn for women’s basketball like the likes of Notre Dame, UConn, Louisville and some others, but this is a surging program that’s been to three straight Sweet 16s, including two Elite Eights.

Furthermore, anticipation for this contest has been juiced by the fact that the Seminoles have had a full week to prepare, and that their last game was their stunning 50-49 road win over then-No. 2 Louisville.

Those are the same Cardinals who 10 days earlier shredded the Irish, 100-67.

Now Louisville, Notre Dame and Virginia are all tied atop the ACC at 7-1, with FSU a half-game back at 6-1.

“They’re a very good team,” Shepard said of the Seminoles, who are 9-0 in Tallahassee and have gone over 100 points in each of their three ACC home games. “They have good guard play and good post play, so I think for us it’s going to be about really coming in and focusing on our defense.”

Similar to the Cardinals, Florida State has a veteran star presence both inside and outside.

Shakayla Thomas — a power-packed 5-foot-11 and the reigning ACC Player of the Year in the coaches’ vote — is averaging 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and shooting 53 percent from the field. Fellow senior Imani Wright is at 17.9 points and has hit 69-of-165 on 3-pointers for 42 percent.

“Thomas is such a tough matchup, because she’s really athletic,” McGraw said. “She’s a tough matchup for our posts. She can score in so many ways. We really need to be aware of where she is.

“Imani Wright can shoot the ball when you think you’re guarding her,” the coach added, “so we need to be even closer than we think we need to be, without fouling, but we need to be up and get a hand up on her.”

If recent games are an indication, the Irish will be trying to do so primarily out of a zone that has become dramatically more effective in the four outings since the Louisville loss.

“Lately, we've just been more aggressive looking to find the ball, find the shooters,” McGraw said. “I think we’re doing a better job of identifying where they are. I think we’re communicating better. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

“Coach has put a big emphasis on that,” Shepard said of being more active within the zone. “We were just kind of standing around in our zone (at first), and she wants us to be just as aggressive as we are in man, just be moving all the time.”

Shepard’s coming off a 28-point, 12-rebound performance in Thursday’s 87-53 win at Pittsburgh, that despite sitting out all of the fourth quarter.

Over her last four games, she’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and shooting a sizzling 67 percent from the field on 34-of-51.

Also over those last four games, Arike Ogunbowale is averaging 20.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.3 steals, with fellow junior guard Marina Mabrey at 13.3 points, 6.3 assists and 4.3 steals.

“I think we’re just starting to play together better,” Shepard said of the stretch that includes the record comeback from 23 points down against then-No. 6 Tennessee, “and I just think our defense is leading to a lot of easy offense.”

For Shepard, Sunday’s game will be a reunion with fellow Nebraska native Chatrice White. The two were longtime AAU teammates growing up and then Big Ten rivals when Shepard played at Nebraska and White at Illinois.

White, a 6-3 senior, hauled in 16 rebounds — nine offensive — in just 21 minutes against Louisville. For the season, she’s averaging 8.8 points and 7.7 boards.

Triggering the Seminoles’ attack is junior point guard AJ Alix, averaging 12.2 points, 7.2 assists and a 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard (23) puts up a shot during the Syracuse at Notre Dame women's NCAA basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

WHO: No. 5 Notre Dame (19-2, 7-1 ACC) vs. No. 8 Florida State (18-2, 6-1 ACC).

WHERE: Donald L. Tucker Center (11,500), Tallahassee, Fla.

WHEN: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: For two teams with similar records and ratings, the Irish and Seminoles have oddly little commonality to show from among five common opponents. ND beat host Wake Forest 96-73, while FSU needed OT to escape 81-79; ND downed Syracuse 87-72, while FSU was surprised 76-69; and ND stormed by Clemson 90-37 to FSU’s 69-47 win. Conversely, FSU crushed Miami 105-67 in comparison to ND’s 83-76 home win, and most recently knocked off then-No. 2 host Louisville 50-49 after the Cards sailed by ND 100-67. … Florida State has erased 15-point deficits in each of its last two games. … FSU is second in the nation among 349 Division I teams in rebound margin at 13.5, fourth in victory margin at 23.4 and fifth in scoring at 85.8. The Irish rate high in those categories as well (13th in rebounding at 9.3, 18th in victory margin at 17.0 and eighth in scoring at 84.2) … Notre Dame’s won all six meetings between the schools, including 79-61 last season at home.

QUOTING: “It’s a grind. (Players) make a lot of sacrifices. We got home fairly early (Thursday from Pittsburgh). If you’re home by midnight, you consider that early. Back to class on Friday, practice, pack your suitcase and back out on the road (Saturday).” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on road games both Thursday and Sunday.