ND women try to rebound against No. 24 Florida State
SOUTH BEND — There’s been no shortage of wake-up calls provided to Notre Dame women’s basketball this season, apparently just a shortage of kicking away the covers for good rather than hitting the snooze button.
The latest alarm was sounded Thursday in Coral Gables, Fla., where the No. 4-ranked Irish trailed throughout the final 15:11 of a 72-65 loss to Miami.
“Yet another wake-up call — the third one this season, and we should’ve learned from the first one,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday afternoon following an extended practice that she did describe as “a great one.”
The loss to the Hurricanes — who are No. 25, but have lost five times themselves — was ND’s second in its last four games, the other stumble coming against an unrated North Carolina club.
The latest defeat assured that for the first time in eight years the Irish (21-3, 8-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) will end a regular season with more than one league loss.
Tall tasks remain, too, beginning with Sunday’s noon visit by No. 24 Florida State (20-3, 8-2).
The Seminoles and Irish are among four teams tied for second in the ACC.
Even if ND can avoid another regular-season loss, its string of outright or shared conference titles will end at seven if No. 2 Louisville (22-1, 9-1) doesn’t slip down the stretch.
The irony, at least seemingly, is that this threat exists in the very season after the Irish win the national title, return four starters regarded among the nation’s best at their positions and regain the services of a second-team All-American, Brianna Turner, who missed last season.
“There’s really no excuse for how we’re playing,” ACC scoring leader Arike Ogunbowale said Saturday. “We know we’re going to get everybody’s best game, but even if we didn’t win (last year’s title), we’re Notre Dame and we’re always going to get everybody’s best game. We’ve just got to come out stronger.”
According to McGraw, the Irish may be suffering through the sort of let-up syndrome that has more commonly afflicted recent Super Bowl champs.
“That’s exactly what the problem is and it’s completely my fault,” she declared. “I feel like I’m letting them be average. I’m letting them just kind of be out there playing and not really in high
“I’ve gotta do a better job subbing,” the coach suggested. “I gotta get some more energy into the game. You know, if you’re allowed to go out and play at a certain pace and stay in the game, you’re going to continue to play at that pace. So, really, I need to pull ’em out of the game, let ’em sit down, think about it for a while, maybe not put ’em back in for a while. I did a really poor job subbing (at Miami), and I think that’s one of the answers.”
Senior forward Jessica Shepard, who had a team-high 17 points and game-high 17 rebounds against the Canes, fought tears afterwards as the Irish continued their search for how to reach and remain at a peak level.
“We know what the goal is, and right now we’re not taking care of what we need to do to get there,” Shepard said Saturday. “I think today was a lot better practice. Every game, we’re just going to have to come in with the focus and just play to our potential. If we do that, we know it will take care of us.”
With just six regular-season games remaining, time’s ticking on ND finding and sustaining its top gear, as well as earning a top NCAA Tournament seed.
Thursday’s loss likely knocked the Irish out of a No. 1 seed for at least the moment, and potentially away from their preferred regional destination of Chicago.
Given their still-No. 1 RPI against a wringer of a schedule, though, they might still be able to regain a 1 seed if they can win out, including taking the ACC Tournament.
Regardless, ND will be in the NCAA Tourney, but being there has never been the goal.
“I think every year we want to go into the tournament strong,” Ogunbowale said. “I don’t think we just want to be there because we should be there, so we definitely need to get back into our rhythm now.”
It’s a rhythm the Irish are hunting at both ends.
While uninspired defense has been cited by McGraw a number of times, it was the usually high-octane ND offense that had its own issues at Miami.
Notre Dame finished with a season low in points, including just 43 over the final three quarters, and shot a season-low 37.3 percent from the field. The Irish entered the game at 51.9 percent to rank second in the nation and had never slipped below 40.3.
ND, which often doubles the opposition in paint-point production, was outscored in the lane for just the second time all season, 30-28, the other occasion coming against UConn, 42-38.
The Irish also finished with their worst rebounding effort at minus-nine.
“We didn’t get a lot of transition offensively, which we normally like to do, because we didn’t rebound,” McGraw said. “If we don’t rebound, we’re not going to be able to run, and that takes away a lot of our offense. Then we shot poorly.”
Of late, Ogunbowale, the preseason All-American who drained game-winners in both rounds of last spring’s Final Four, has shot especially poorly.
ND’s scoring ace has experienced cold streaks before, but she typically erases them with a take-over quarter that directs her percentages back up.
Over her last four games, though, she’s just 20-of-61 from the field for 33 percent, including 4-of-21 outside the arc (19 percent), to go with 17-of-25 at the line (68 percent).
Those percentages have dropped her season figures to 45, 29 and 77.
“I’m trying not to even think about that,” McGraw said of an Ogunbowale slump. “I think her shot selection has been a little questionable. I think that’s been the issue, so trying to get back to the free throw line will solve that.”
“I’ll be fine,” Ogunbowale promised.
“Arike’s a great player,” Shepard said. “We know that she’s going to get in a rhythm, just as she always does.”
WHO: No. 24 Florida State (20-3, 8-2 ACC) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (21-3, 8-2).
WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.
WHEN: Sunday, noon.
TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.
RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).
NOTING: Florida State is led by 6-2 redshirt junior Kiah Gillespie, who sat out last season after transferring from Maryland. Gillespie is averaging 17.0 points and 8.5 rebounds. Junior guards Nicki Ekhomu (14.3 ppg, 3.9 assists, 1.8 steals) and Nausia Woolfolk (12.7 ppg, 1.8 spg) power a potent backcourt, while 6-3 freshman Valencia Myers is at 9.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. … The Seminoles are hitting just 26.8 percent on 3-pointers, but average plus-4.4 on takeaways/giveaways to rank second in the ACC. … Irish leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (ACC-pacing 20.7 ppg, 1.8 spg), Jessica Shepard (15.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 60.7 percent from the field), Marina Mabrey (14.7 ppg, 4.2 apg), Jackie Young (14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.7 apg) and Brianna Turner (12.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg, ACC-pacing 2.6 bpg). … Turner is averaging 3.9 blocks over her last seven games. … Notre Dame’s won all eight meetings against Florida State, including a pair of victories last season. … Sunday’s contest will serve as the annual Pink Zone game. Fans are encouraged to wear pink in honor of breast cancer survivors who will be in attendance.
QUOTING: “They’re really athletic, and they’re going to really come out and guard us. If you can play defense, especially in this league, you can beat anybody, so we’ve really got to be strong with the ball, can’t turn it over, gotta take advantage of the mismatches, and we need to get back into transition gear.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on Florida State