Irish, Vols on opposite end of women's basketball spectrum

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — The collective jaw of women’s college basketball dropped to the floor a year ago when Notre Dame staged its record-setting rally against none other than Tennessee.

The Vols might be able to drop that jaw straight through the floor if they can find a way to avenge the loss Thursday night on ESPN.

The Irish (18-1) roar into Knoxville with the nation’s No. 1 ranking in both major polls and 11 straight victories, while Tennessee (12-6) limps into its own arena with a five-game losing skid that is the program’s worst in 49 years.

“What better way to come out of a slump than to beat the No. 1 team in the country?” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw speculated Wednesday regarding the Vols’ perspective. “They are really in need of a win and we have got to be incredibly focused, because the game could go either way.”

Frankly, the results of the last couple weeks suggest otherwise, but then again, this is ND-UT, a series in which strange things have been the norm the last couple years.

Most recently, that includes that game of a year ago at Notre Dame when the Irish completed the greatest comeback win in program history. They not only erased a 23-point, first-half deficit, but wound up prevailing handily, 84-70.

“Being able to come back and rally together, I think that really helped us last season — and I think it’s carried over to this season,” All-American guard Arike Ogunbowale said Wednesday afternoon before practice of just how meaningful that one win was.

ND had been shellacked just seven days earlier at Louisville, 100-67, and there were whispers that four players out with season-ending knee injuries had simply become too many.

Instead, the No. 5 Irish went on to capture the national title 12 weeks later.

“Just seeing the fight in our team, the not giving up considering we lost by 30-something two games before that,” ND guard Marina Mabrey said of what sticks out about last winter’s victory over Tennessee. “Just not letting the season go down the drain, just making sure we stayed together and worked as a team.”

“That’s the game that turned our season around,” McGraw concurred, adding that the Vols are likely envisioning a similar springboard for themselves in Thursday’s rematch.

Tennessee marched into last season’s game with a 16-1 record and a No. 6 ranking. ND was 16-2 and No. 5, but was trending down.

The Vols led 37-14 at 7:03 to go in the second quarter.

The Irish closed to 39-27 by halftime, but were still behind 61-50 in the opening minute of the fourth period — before vaporizing the visitors 34-9 the rest of the way.

“As we were coming back, they still were scoring,” recalled Mabrey, who finished that night with 20 points, seven assists and four steals, “so it wasn’t a fast comeback. … I was really happy just knowing our team was still there, still had that competitive fire.”

The win came one year after an unranked Tennessee team had capped a comeback of its own from a 15-point, second-half deficit to edge a No. 6 ND club 71-69 in Knoxville.

In that one, since-departed Jaime Nared hit a jumper at 10.3 seconds to go to break a 69-69 deadlock, before since-departed Lindsay Allen missed a 3-pointer just ahead of the final gun.

“It was really fun,” remembered Mabrey, who usually says nothing remotely like that when talking about a loss. “I thought it was a great environment. There were so many people there. It was really loud in there. It was a really great day for women’s basketball.”

The evening was billed “We Back Pat” night in honor of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who had died six months earlier. Attendance was 10,517. More than $600,000 was presented to the Pat Summitt Foundation for the fight against Alzheimer’s.

Thursday’s game will be another “We Back Pat” event.

“I’ve never played at Tennessee, so I’m really excited,” ND forward Jessica Shepard said of visiting the home of the winningest program in women’s basketball history. “I’ve heard from (teammates) that it’s a great atmosphere, that it’s really loud in there, so it’ll be important that we’re locked in.”

According to Shepard, the Vols’ five straight losses mean little.

“I think we know we’re going to get their best shot,” said the senior who needs 25 points for 2,000 in her career between Nebraska and Notre Dame. “They’re going to come in ready to play with a good game plan, so I think we’re really going to have to be locked in on what the coaches are asking us to do, and play our best game.”

“They have scorers at all positions,” said Ogunbowale, who tallied 27 points, 13 in the fourth quarter, during last season’s Irish comeback win. “They have good shooters, good inside play, so they’re really a solid team.”

Before its current five-game skid — which includes four losses by a combined nine points — Tennessee did knock off currently No. 12 host Texas, 88-82, and pushed No. 6 Stanford before falling, 95-85. The skid itself includes two-point losses to No. 15 Kentucky and No. 25 Missouri.

“They were ranked 10th in the country (three weeks ago),” McGraw said, “and just have had a little bit of trouble. It could change at any moment.”

Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick reacts as her team falls behind against Notre Dame on Jan. 18, 2018, in South Bend.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 1 Notre Dame (18-1) vs. Tennessee (12-6).

WHERE: Thompson-Boling Arena (21,678), Knoxville, Tenn.

WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

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

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: The 1-1 split between Tennessee and Notre Dame over the last two seasons — with the teams erasing 15 and 23-point deficits in their respective wins — comes on the heels of the Volunteers taking the first 20 meetings ever, then the Irish winning the next six. …. Tennessee is led by Evina Westbrook, a 6-foot sophomore from Salem, Ore., who also was recruited hard by ND. She’s averaging 16.8 points and 5.2 assists. Fellow soph Rennia Davis is at 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds. Senior Meme Jackson is averaging 12.1 points and 1.9 steals, freshman Zaay Green 10.2 points, and senior Cheridene Green (no relation) 8.4 points and 7.0 rebounds. … Irish leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (21.5 points, 3.8 assists), Jessica Shepard (14.9 points, 9.7 rebounds), Jackie Young (14.4 points, 4.5 assists), Marina Mabrey (14.1 points, 4.3 assists) and Brianna Turner (13.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.3 blocks) … Mabrey, 10-of-18 outside the arc over her last three games, is one 3-pointer from tying sister and 2016 grad Michaela for fourth place on the Irish career list at 228. Alicia Ratay, who wrapped up her ND career in 2003, holds the school record at 262, followed by 1999 grad Sheila McMillen (249) and 1997 product Beth Morgan (231). … The Vols have a net effective field goal percentage of just 40.2 over their five-game losing streak while allowing opponents 47.9. ND is at 53.0 over its Last five games while allowing 37.9.

QUOTING: “When you’re not winning and all of a sudden things start going your way, then everything seems to work, so we’ve got to make sure we come out and are on our defensive intensity immediately.”

— Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on facing a Tennessee team that has lost five straight.