Tourney seeding driving Notre Dame's league chase

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Sure, Notre Dame would love to capture Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and league tourney women’s basketball titles for the sheer joy of it, but there’s also a hovering, pesky feel of necessity to it.

“I think it’s more about seeding in the NCAA Tournament,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw acknowledged Sunday of what is driving the regular-season championship chase and will be driving the ACC Tourney chase, “but I also think it’s about fulfilling your potential. We were picked to finish first, and that’s where we want to finish.”

“It’s a bit of both,” ND senior point guard Marina Mabrey said of whether she’s able to revel in the satisfaction of hard-earned league titles or instead be mindful of the postseason implications attached.

“I feel like doing well in the ACC would help us in the NCAA Tournament,” Mabrey said. “It makes our road, I don’t want to say easier, but you wouldn’t have to play such hard teams so early, although everybody in the tournament is good.”

No. 5-ranked Notre Dame (25-3, 12-2) resumes pursuit of its eighth straight shared or outright regular-season conference crown — the first two during that streak came in the Big East — when it visits No. 18 Syracuse (20-6, 9-4) for a 6 p.m. game Monday on ESPN2.

The Irish, who have unintentionally made the hunt for their latest title dramatic with surprise losses at North Carolina and Miami, regained the inside track on Thursday by virtue of their fourth straight overpowering win and Miami’s loss at Virginia Tech.

Mabrey’s freshman sister, Dara, drained 3-of-7 on 3-pointers and dished a game-high five assists in the Hokies’ 73-65 victory over the Hurricanes.

“I told her when they beat (Miami) that it helped us,” Marina said, “but really, I was just happy for her, too. … I know they’ve been struggling to win ACC games.”

If Notre Dame wins its remaining two, not only will the Irish be at least co-champs with No. 4 Louisville (25-2, 12-2) for a second straight year, but this time around, will hold the ACC Tourney seeding tiebreaker over the Cardinals by virtue of beating them Jan. 10.

No. 9 North Carolina State and No. 14 Miami — which holds seeding tiebreakers over both the Irish and Louisville — are each a game back at 11-3.

Regardless of who takes the regular-season crown, chances are the NCAA Tournament selection committee might place greater weight on who wins the ACC Tourney title given how close the regular-season battle has been.

Hence, the Irish may have to capture that March 6-10 event in Greensboro, N.C., to secure one of the four coveted No. 1 NCAA seeds, particularly the one with the favorable geographical path through the Chicago Regional.

Right now, No. 1 Baylor and No. 3 Connecticut appear certain for top seeds if they win out, including in their league tourneys, but No. 2/sure-to-drop Oregon has lost twice in the last week.

No. 6 Mississippi State could make its own case if it wins out.

“It depends on what everybody else does,” McGraw said of the No. 1 seeding outlook, “but I don’t see Connecticut losing in (the American Conference) and Baylor seems to be holding strong in the Big 12.”

A year ago, ND and Louisville both wound up with No. 1 seeds, but because the Cards hammered the Irish in the regular season and then nipped them in the ACC Tourney, that also meant Louisville was assigned to go through the nearby Lexington Regional and the Irish were shipped to Spokane, Wash.

Notre Dame went on to win the national title anyway, and the Cards reached the Final Four.

McGraw says it’s possible that the ACC may have to settle for one No. 1 this time around, depending on other developments, but she also points out the league’s track record and adds that ND’s “strength of schedule is No. 1 in the country. That’s gotta count for something.”

Monday’s matchup

With a crowd of 11,021, Syracuse more than doubled its previous women’s single-game home attendance record when Notre Dame visited the cavernous Carrier Dome two years ago, and the Orange anticipate setting another mark Monday.

“It’s huge,” McGraw said of the football-first facility that was also home to a men’s basketball school-record crowd of 35,642 on Saturday against Duke. “We’ve had some games where it’s not been very full, and then last time we were there, it was a great crowd, and they gave us a great game.”

The Irish trailed 63-59 through three quarters, before rallying for an 85-80 victory.

ND’s two best players that particular day are back in Brianna Turner and Mabrey.

Turner was 13-of-14 from the field on her way to a career-high 31 points. Mabrey had 22 points and five assists. She went 3-of-6 outside the arc and 9-of-10 at the line.

On Sunday, Mabrey said she’s still fighting through an illness that she battled while delivering 10 assists during Thursday’s 89-61 win over Duke, but she was dressed for practice and hopeful of again playing Monday.

Awaiting for the Orange will be slick junior guard Tiana Mangakahia.

“She almost had a triple-double against us last year,” McGraw said of Mangakahia collecting 26 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in an 87-72 loss at Notre Dame. “She’s capable of a triple-double every time out. She’s phenomenal, great vision, can shoot it. … She’s just really hard to guard.”

Mangakahia is leading Syracuse at 15.2 points per game, leading the ACC at 8.5 assists and is second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio to ND’s Jackie Young (2.4) at 2.2.

The Irish will be playing an ESPN or ESPN2 Big Monday game for the second straight week, while the Orange will be playing their first ever.

Syracuse guard Tiana Mangakahia (4), left, is averaging 15 points and 8.5 assists a game.
Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner, shown against Louisville on Jan. 10, had a career night the last time she played in Syracuse’s Carrier Dome.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 5 Notre Dame (25-3, 12-2 ACC) vs. No. 18 Syracuse (20-6, 9-4).

WHERE: Carrier Dome (35,642), Syracuse, N.Y.

WHEN: Monday, 6 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

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

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Syracuse, 10-2 at the Carrier Dome, is playing the last of five straight home games. No other ACC team plays that many consecutive home or away league contests this season, and only Pittsburgh is slotted for as many as four. … Notre Dame is 32-2 all-time against the Orange with 18 straight wins overall and 14 in a row at Syracuse, where the Irish haven’t lost since 1989. … ND pacesetters include Arike Ogunbowale (ACC-leading 21.2 ppg, 4.1 apg, 1.8 spg), Jessica Shepard (16.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 60.4

percent on field goals), Jackie Young (14.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 4.7 apg), Marina Mabrey (14.1 ppg, 4.4 apg, 58-of-127 on 3s for 45.7 percent) and Brianna Turner (13.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, ACC-leading 2.7 blocks and ACC-leading 61.7 percent on field goals). … Irish guard Jordan Nixon has missed the last three games with a pulled hamstring and “it doesn’t look good” for her returning Monday, coach Muffet McGraw said Sunday. … Syracuse is led by junior Tiana Mangakahia (15.2 ppg, ACC-best 8.5 apg, 2.1 spg). Seven other Orange players are each averaging 5.3 to 11.5 points per outing and all of them at least 14.8 minutes.

QUOTING: “I’ve really enjoyed coaching her. She’s taught me a lot of things about being fearless, about letting things go. I think she’s left a mark on the program that will last forever. She’ll be up in the rafters one day soon and I couldn’t be prouder of what she’s accomplished here.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on Arike Ogunbowale setting the program’s career scoring record.