Analysis: Breaking down the Notre Dame women's first 24 games

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — These last dozen have been even better than the first dozen, and those first dozen were good enough to qualify as the envy of almost anybody in the nation.

Further, this improvement by the Notre Dame women’s basketball team has happened in spite of the fact that these last dozen have come almost entirely without Lili Thompson and Mikayla Vaughn, the two out-for-the-season injured players who were regular contributors during much of that first dozen.

As the No. 5-ranked Irish (22-2, 10-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) head into Sunday’s 1 p.m. home matchup against Georgia Tech, after a welcomed week off, they do so with the knowledge that they continue to clearly trend upward in their quality of play.

“I think the heart, the passion, we have on this team, the competitiveness,” senior forward Kathryn Westbeld said Saturday at practice of how ND has been able to keep upticking even after losing two contributors from their regular rotation to injuries.

“We just never give up,” Westbeld said. “I think that’s huge. I think Coach (Muffet McGraw) has done a really good job all along of letting us know our season’s not over, that we still have seven players who are very capable of playing in a national championship. I think she’s kind of instilled that in us, and I think that’s really what’s been in the back of our head since our (teammates) went down.”

Most recently — as in during their current seven-game winning streak — the Irish have run roughshod over the opposition, averaging 88.0 points while allowing 57.9. Some of their other numbers during that stretch have been similarly lopsided.

But even if one breaks the season into the aforementioned pair of dozens that have taken place so far and examines it that way, the level of improvement is still vivid.

First off, it should be noted that the caliber of the schedule’s been roughly the same over each dozen, with each yielding an 11-1 record.

In each dozen, ND played four teams that are currently ranked, and conveniently enough, the average ranking of each set of opponents comes out virtually the same (11.3 to 11.5). Overall, ND’s faced the nation’s toughest schedule to date, per the Sagarin Ratings.

So, here are some of the figures to consider in the dozen vs. dozen comparison (and bear in mind that the worst aberration, the 100-67 loss to Louisville, occurred during the second dozen, and the most stat-padding game, the 121-65 win over Mount St. Mary’s, occurred during the first dozen):

• The Irish are averaging 85.5 points and allowing 65.0 over their last dozen games. They were at 84.8 and 66.5 during the first dozen.

• The Irish have a glistening 54.7 effective field goal percentage over the last dozen games after already being among the country’s elite in the first dozen at 51.6. Effective field goal percentage (or eFG) is calculated from total points off 2-pointers and 3-pointers while ignoring whether a miss is a 2 or a 3. For the record, ND is also fourth in the nation among 349 Division I teams in 2-point percentage (49.6) and 80th in 3-point percentage (34.4).

• Irish opponents have actually climbed a bit as well on eFG over the last dozen games, 45.6 to 43.4 for the first dozen, but consider the next two items in truly evaluating total defensive effectiveness.

• The Irish are forcing 19.4 turnovers an outing over the last dozen games to 14.6 over the first dozen, cutting down the opponents’ chances and creating a few more transition opportunities of their own. Their own turnovers have stayed at 14.8 in each dozen.

• The Irish are committing a paltry 11.3 fouls per outing over the last dozen games (including 9.6 over the last eight), thereby rarely sending their opponent to the line, after landing at 14.1 in the first dozen. Their overall figure of 12.7 is sixth in the nation.

“I think we’re playing smarter,” McGraw said Saturday. “I think we really are trying to play good defense without fouling, so we’re not getting fouls away from the basket. We’re not getting the frustration fouls. We’re playing with a lot of poise.”

Avoiding foul trouble has been essential for a team with limited depth. Over the last eight games, only backup Kristina Nelson has committed more than three fouls in a game, and the only other players to even get to three are Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey — once each.

With the first two-dozen games in the books, the main goal for the Irish now is to still have more than a dozen left.

Five regular-season contests remain. As a likely top-four seed in the ACC Tournament, ND could play three games in that event. Then comes the quest to play a half-dozen in the NCAA Tourney.

“Absolutely,” Westbeld said of whether she senses the Irish are ready to resume their chase after a week off. “I think we’re in a good place right now. I think we’re playing really well together. I think (the week between games) is just what we needed to go into this home stretch.”

Kat's eye

Westbeld was still sporting plenty of purple and black around her right eye Saturday after being poked there in the Feb. 1 win over North Carolina, but the swelling is almost gone.

“It feels a lot better,” Westbeld said. “It’s improving every day. I’m surprised how fast it’s healing. It still hurts a bit to the touch, but other than that, it’s fine.”

In last Sunday’s 72-54 win over No. 19 Duke, Westbeld played with long strips of tape placed to pull at the swelling and thereby help with her peripheral vision.

“That part’s fine now,” Westbeld said.

Think pink

Sunday’s matchup serves as ND’s annual Pink Zone game as the Irish contribute toward the fight against breast cancer.

Funds have been raised through fans bidding on having the name of a loved one printed on the back of either the customized warm-ups the players will be wearing or the shirts the coaches will be wearing.

At halftime, fans dressed in pink will have a chance to join together for an on-court human ribbon activity and photo.

Special Pink Zone souvenir items will be available.

After the game, an afternoon of bingo is offered in the Monogram Room. Tickets are $20 each or $40 for three seats together, and will be sold at the game.

Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard (23) and Kathryn Westbeld (33) discuss a play 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: Georgia Tech (15-10, 4-8 ACC) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (22-2, 10-1).

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

WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

TV: RSN (Comcast Network 101)

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

NOTING: Sunday’s game is the first of two rematches on ND’s regular-season schedule, the other being at Boston College next Sunday. The Irish beat Georgia Tech 77-54 on Jan. 7 in Atlanta, building a 48-18 lead by halftime, to improve to 9-0 in the all-time series. … Tech scoring leaders are Francesca Pan (13.0 points per game) and Zaire O’Neil (10.4). Elo Edeferioka is averaging 7.9 points and 6.4 rebounds, while five other players are between 4.6 and 7.6 points each. … ND scoring leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (19.8), Jessica Shepard (15.4), Jackie Young (13.9) and Marina Mabrey (13.5).