Notre Dame out to reclaim ACC hardware

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Because Notre Dame captured the ultimate prize in women’s college basketball last season, perhaps it’s easy to forget that the Irish did not capture a couple prizes available along the way.

The team itself, though, has not forgotten.

“Our goal every year is to go undefeated in conference play and to win the (conference) tournament, so we kind of have those same goals again this year,” fifth-year forward Brianna Turner said Wednesday. “We definitely want to get those back.”

The No. 2-ranked Irish (12-1) open the Atlantic Coast Conference portion of their season Thursday night by hosting Pittsburgh (9-5).

Last season — ironically, given that national title — ND saw a couple strings of all-time ACC perfection snipped at the hands of Louisville.

The Cardinals edged the Irish, 74-72, in the league’s tournament title game, that after already crushing visiting ND with astonishing ease, 100-67, in mid-January.

The Irish eventually earned a tie with Louisville for the ACC regular-season title, each team finishing 15-1 after the Cards were dealt a one-point loss against Florida State, but it still marked the first time that ND did not take the conference outright.

This time, Notre Dame gets No. 3 Louisville at home, and soon — a week from Thursday.

Though the Irish proved last spring that they don’t need to hoist ACC Tourney or outright regular-season hardware to catapult themselves to NCAA Tourney hardware, coach Muffet McGraw agreed Wednesday with Turner on the importance of trying to reclaim those jewels in 2019.

“Because, we’ve set the standard, set the bar high, and we need to fulfill our own potential and expectations,” McGraw explained of why it’s important.

The Irish joined the ACC from the Big East in 2013-14 and basically owned the league until last season.

They swept to outright regular-season and ACC Tourney titles each of their first four years aboard, joining Duke in 2001-04 as the only programs ever to achieve four consecutive such doubles in a conference that is now in its 42nd year on the women’s side.

Notre Dame did lose one regular-season ACC contest in both 2015 and 2017, but still won those titles outright to go with perfect marks in 2014 and 2016.

If the Irish can win or share the regular-season crown this season, they’ll join Virginia in 1991-96 as the only programs with six straight regular-season titles.

It won’t come easily in a league that again appears loaded.

Besides Notre Dame at No. 2 and Louisville (12-0) at No. 3, the ACC boasts North Carolina State (13-0) at No. 9 and Syracuse (11-2) at No. 14 in both of this week’s major polls.

Plus, there’s Florida State (12-1) at No. 23 and Virginia Tech (13-0) at No. 25 in the coaches’ poll, and Miami (12-3) slightly outside the top 25 in both polls.

ND’s lone meetings against N.C. State, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Miami this season will all come on the road.

“I’ll have to wait until I wade into it a little bit more, because we’ve had some really strong years,” McGraw said of whether the league is as potent as it’s been during her time in it, “but absolutely, I do feel good about where the conference is at.”

The Irish enter league play having surged a bit lately.

ND has won its last four games by an average of 35.5 points, the closest being an 87-63 victory at No. 19 Marquette.

Over those four outings, the Irish have shot a scalding 61.2 percent from the field — improving to 52.4 on the season to rank third in the nation. Defensively, ND is limiting opponents to 33.1 percent.

“I like where we are right now,” McGraw said. “Marquette was a great win against a very good team on their floor. Lehigh (ND’s 95-68 win Sunday), I thought we were not as sharp, so I still worry about the consistency of our practices for this time of the year, how we’re challenging each other and how much better we’re getting.

“So, I like where we’re at, but we still have a lot of work to do,” the coach continued. “I can still see more potential. I’d like to see the bench come along a bit more.”

As it is, the Irish own the nation’s most wins against AP-ranked teams, standing 4-1.

Connecticut, which beat host ND 89-71 a month ago, is the only other team in the country with at least three such wins, standing 3-0, while Michigan is the lone team besides ND with at least five such opponents, standing 2-3.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner and her teammates would like to reclaim some Atlantic Coast Conference hardward this season.

WHO: Pittsburgh (9-5) vs. No. 2 Notre Dame (12-1).

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

WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15

RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).

TV/Web: ACC Network Extra.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Pittsburgh has won seven of its last eight, but the Panthers have not played a currently ranked team and their last loss was 77-43 against West Virginia. … ND enters Thursday’s league opener at 40-0 all-time in ACC home games. The Irish also are 12-0 all-time at home against Pittsburgh and have beaten the Panthers nine straight times overall. Pitt’s last win in the series came in January 2009, when both schools were in the Big East. … The Panthers, in their first season under longtime Florida State assistant Lance White, have played their last nine games minus top scorer Aysia Bugg (14.0 points per game), out indefinitely due to blood clots. Other Pitt leaders are Cassidy Walsh (10.9 ppg, 27-of-73 on 3s), Danielle Garven (10.2 ppg), Jasmine Whitney (9.1 ppg, 3.6 ssists, 1.6 steals), Cara Judkins (6.5 ppg, 6.7 rebounds) and Kyla Nelson (20-of-47 on 3s). … Pacing Notre Dame are ACC scoring leader Arike Ogunbowale (23.1 ppg, 3.5 apg), Jessica Shepard (15.8 ppg, 9.6 rpg), Jackie Young (15.6 ppg, 5.1 apg), Marina Mabrey (14.0 ppg, 4.3 apg) and Brianna Turner (13.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.2 blocks). … Young, a junior, needs six points to become the 40th player in program history to reach 1,000.

QUOTING: “Conference play is like a brand new season for a lot of people. You just want to go undefeated and win the tournament. The teams we’re playing now, we’ve seen these teams every single year, so we kind of already know what to expect and it’s just about being ready to come out and compete.” — Notre Dame forward Brianna Turner on the start of the ACC season.