ND women dominating the middle quarters

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — For Notre Dame opponents, this women’s basketball season has proven a riddle in the middle.

That could, of course, be a reference to Irish standout bigs Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner. They’re operating in unison on the blocks and complementing each other with high-low feeds.

Or it could allude to the way Arike Ogunbowale roars through the middle in transition.

Or the way Jackie Young navigates a clogged middle in the half-court for what still winds up a high-percentage shot.

Or the way Marina Mabrey’s never going to shy away from the middle of high-stress situations.

But the middle in this particular case refers to the way Notre Dame has mostly devoured its opposition during the middle quarters this season.

Over the second and third periods, the No. 1-ranked Irish (17-1, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are averaging 48.6 points while allowing 28.3.

That includes a 23.3-13.2 spread in the second quarter and a 25.2-15.1 gap in the third.

On the more pedestrian side, ND is still outscoring opponents 21.5-17.4 on average in opening quarters and 17.5-16.4 in fourth quarters.

“I think because of our bench, we’re a little fresher in the second quarter,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said before practice Saturday morning, “whereas last year, we were playing the same six people most of the time the whole game.”

ND’s potent third quarters are coming on the heels of halftime adjustments.

“I’m really pleased with the second halves,” McGraw said. “We come in and talk about some of the things that aren’t going well, or that we need to do differently, and they’ve responded well.

“We’re getting smarter,” the coach continued, “which is so important in our zone. (During Wednesday’s 80-51 win at Virginia Tech), we figured out when we had to move. We were sliding a little bit differently than we had, and we hadn’t really worked on it much, kind of just talked about it, but they went out and did it, so I was really pleased with that.”

The Irish punished the Hokies 29-10 in the third quarter, that after already outscoring Tech 26-14 in the second.

“I think we have to give credit to our defense,” Young said Saturday of the middle quarters. “That’s where it starts. Whenever we get defensive stops, we’re able to go in transition, and our best game is in transition.”

Notre Dame has outscored the opposition in 33 of the 36 second and third quarters it’s played this season.

The only exceptions have been narrow ones — 17-17 in the second quarter against Iowa, 18-21 in the third quarter during the loss to Connecticut and 13-16 in the second quarter against Louisville.

The Irish authoritatively responded to those second periods against the Hawkeyes and Cardinals with 34-14 and 24-12 thirds.

On the other hand, the slippage against the Huskies in the third did morph into a minus-12 meltdown during the fourth of that 89-71 defeat.

As for the opening and closing quarters, why have those proven far more a mixed bag for Notre Dame than the middle ones? Five opponents have gotten the best of the Irish through one period and six clubs have outscored ND during the fourth.

“I think teams are coming out fired up — they’re playing the No. 1 team and there’s a lot of emotion,” McGraw explained of the first periods. “Sometimes we want to give them that knockout punch right away and sometimes we just come out a little flat. Mostly, I’ve been OK with (the first quarters).”

“I think once we realize that we can’t just kind of mess around, we get to it, but we need to have better first quarters,” Shepard said. “I think we need to focus on our starts better, and we need to make sure we’re finishing, too.”

There are a couple caveats to those fourth quarters, though.

Five of the six fourth periods in which ND has been outscored have come with the Irish already comfortably ahead. Also, it’s by far the quarter in which the backups are seeing the most action, because of those comfortable leads.

For comparison, last season’s national champions wound up nowhere near as overwhelming in the middle quarters as this season’s Notre Dame team has been so far, but those 2017-18 Irish did compile a steady margin of at least 3.9 points in every period.

That included 4.2 in the first, 4.0 in the second, 5.0 in the third, 3.9 in the fourth and 4.0 over a pair of overtime wins.

Notre Dame finished 35-3. Those Irish also already had seven games by mid-January that were either losses or single-digit wins, and they finished with 11 such games.

This season’s team has had just one such game. The Irish still have two-thirds of their ACC regular season, the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tourney to go.

With both a hopeful tone and a tip to irony, McGraw harkens back to last April.

“It’s interesting. Last year, we had our worst second quarter ever in the Mississippi State game when we scored three points,” the coach said of the eventual title-game win over the Bulldogs, “and the Connecticut game we didn’t do well (in the second quarter, getting outscored 27-10 during the semifinals), so I think maybe there’s just a little more urgency.”

Young’s calling for as much.

“We would like to have better first quarters. Those should be just like we play in the third quarter,” the junior reasoned, “but sometimes we do get off to a slow start. I think it’s just about coming in with an attacking mindset and just getting those stops on defense.”

Eyeing the Eagles

Boston College (13-5, 2-3) comes to town for Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against Notre Dame with a future that appears far more promising than its recent past has been.

Though it would be more fitting to call them Eaglets than Eagles, BC’s already matched its ACC win total from each of the last three seasons.

Its last three clubs each went 2-14 in the league, and the last two finished just 9-21 and 7-23 overall.

This season’s improvement has happened with a 13-player roster that includes eight freshmen and no seniors under first-year coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee.

“(There’s) a new culture and I think a new attitude,” McGraw said. “I think they needed a jump start, and they got it. They’re playing really well, playing hard, and they’re competitive in every game. I think it’s a very different Boston College team from last year.”

Bernabei-McNamee succeeded Erik Johnson, who resigned March 1 after six seasons with a 68-115 record.

A former West Virginia and Maryland assistant, Bernabei-McNamee arrived at BC after leading Albany to a 45-20 mark and an NCAA Tourney appearance over two seasons.

Notre Dame freshman guard Jordan Nixon comes off the bench to provide Irish starters some relief.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Boston College (13-5, 2-3 ACC) vs. No. 1 Notre Dame (17-1, 5-0).

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

WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

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

TV/WEB: ACC Network Extra.

NOTING: Boston College and Notre Dame already have three ACC opponents in common. The Eagles are 2-1 in those games, the wins being 65-64 at Wake Forest and 59-55 at Pittsburgh, the loss being 81-76 against Georgia Tech. The Irish are 3-0 in those games, the closest being a 76-55 win at Tech. … BC individual leaders are 6-3 junior Emma Guy (13.6 points per game, 7.5 rebounds, 62.8 percent on 2s), 5-8 freshman Makayla Dickens (11.2 ppg, 3.3 assists), junior Taylor Ortlepp (11.1 ppg, 3.8 apg), freshman Marnelle Garraud (10.2 ppg, 1.8 steals, 85.4 percent at the line) and junior Georgia Pineau (9.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.3 blocks). … ND leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (21.3 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.6 spg), Jessica Shepard (15.2 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 61.9 from the field), Jackie Young (14.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 4.5 apg), Marina Mabrey (14.2 ppg, 4.2 apg, 30-of-69 on 3s for 43.5 percent) and Brianna Turner (12.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg). … This is the first of two scheduled meetings between Notre Dame and the Eagles, the follow-up coming Feb. 13 in Chestnut Hill, Mass. The Irish and BC have been on each other’s schedule twice in each of the six seasons that ND has been in the ACC. … Notre Dame has won 12 straight against Boston College since the Eagles’ captured an NCAA Tourney matchup in March 2006. ND is 13-0 at home against BC. … The Irish plan to stage a full-team autograph session after Sunday’s game.

QUOTING: “The last couple games, Coach has really challenged us at halftime and we’re starting to make those (adjustments) a lot easier. It’s taken less yelling — not yelling — but less of the coaches having to be on us all the time and more of us just figuring it out.” — Jessica Shepard, Notre Dame senior forward.