Notre Dame looks ready for taxing ACC stretch
SOUTH BEND — By the numbers, and certainly by a soaring level of play, it’s a fresher Notre Dame women’s basketball team than a season ago that will aim to play three games in three days this weekend during the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
Not that the Irish can ever be fresh enough for coach Muffet McGraw to smell total comfort.
“It is a concern, it always is,” McGraw said this week of encountering potentially three games in three afternoons without the benefit of counting depth as an obvious team strength.
While the interior options off the bench are multiple and reasonable, adding to the challenge in Greensboro, N.C., is the likelihood, according to the coach, that freshman point guard Jordan Nixon will remain out after recently aggravating a hamstring injury.
“So you have one guard sub,” McGraw said, alluding to freshman Abby Prohaska, “so even in a game where you know you’re gonna win at the end, the last three minutes or so, you still can’t take (starters) out, so it’s a huge concern that we don’t any guard depth on the bench.”
That’s why Notre Dame, even as well as the status quo has worked lately, was this week at least exploring whether it can play three bigs together in certain situations.
The No. 4-ranked Irish (27-3) enter the ACC Tourney as the No. 1 seed, but will immediately face one of the teams that tripped them up in the regular season when they meet No. 8 seed North Carolina (18-13) in a 2 p.m. quarterfinal Friday.
The host Tar Heels pulled off a 78-73 shocker over ND on Jan. 27, that coming on the same night that Irish junior guard Jackie Young missed the lone game she’s missed all season with an ankle injury.
If ND beats Carolina this time to land a spot in Saturday’s opening semifinal at noon, then the other ACC team that solved the Irish during the regular season could be waiting in No. 16 Miami (24-8). The Hurricanes face No. 18 Syracuse (23-7) in Friday’s first quarterfinal.
The championship will be at noon Sunday, and most are anticipating a rematch of last year’s final, when Louisville nipped Notre Dame, 74-72.
That outcome helped the Cardinals secure an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed in a more favorable geographical bracket — the one in Lexington, Ky. — while the likewise top-seeded Irish were shipped through Spokane, Wash., before going on to win the national title anyway.
This time around — after getting decked 100-67 by the Cards a year earlier — the Irish already beat Louisville 82-68 in the regular season.
Furthermore this time around, ND brings that aforementioned fresher club.
At least it seems so.
Consider that a year ago, Young ended up playing 34.4 minutes per game, Arike Ogunbowale 34.3, Marina Mabrey 34.3 and Jessica Shepard 29.3 during a season in which ND was ravaged by injuries.
This season, those players’ respective averages are all down a bit at 31.7, 32.6, 30.1 and 28.7.
The fifth starter this time is Brianna Turner, back from a season-costing injury. She’s averaging 27.0 minutes, similar to the 26.3 that since-graduated Kathryn Westbeld averaged a year ago.
Turner says Notre Dame may be in a better place this time, not only by virtue of its bench assuming a few more minutes per game, but by virtue of the manner in which the Irish are playing.
“We run so much in the games,” Turner said. “I think our style of play has just really prepared us for this moment. The last time we had (three games in a row) was November, but I think since then, we’ve all improved our conditioning, improved our strength, so I think we’re ready to have these back-to-back games this weekend.”
Potentially even more telling than how the Irish are playing is how well they’re playing.
Notre Dame’s won each of its last six games by at least 23 points — an all-time first in the program’s rich history — and three of those wins are over ranked clubs.
The only other time the Irish won six in a row by at least 20 came early in the 2014-15 season, and only one of those matchups was against a ranked opponent.
“I think we’re excited that we’re where we need to be in terms of how we’re playing,” said McGraw, who hasn’t sounded that close to content at any other time this season. “Offensively, we’re just really clicking right now. … I feel like all five starters are really playing well, so it’s a good feeling heading (to Greensboro).”
It’s a feeling the Irish hope lands them not only the ACC Tourney crown, but also a favorable NCAA Tourney path.
The selection committee in its final “early reveal” this week had Louisville routed through the Chicago Regional for the middle rounds and Notre Dame going through Portland, Ore., each with No. 1 seeds, but the Irish would likely snatch that Chicago path away by winning the ACC showcase.
“I’d love to go to Chicago, just for our fans,” McGraw said. “I think Greensboro (which is hosting an NCAA regional as well as this week’s event) would also be a place we’re comfortable being at, so I think either one of those two would be places we’d be happy to go to.”
Turner was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week for the third time in the
last three seasons she’s played, as voted on by the league’s coaches.
While acknowledging that she was proud, she brushed the honor aside almost as easily as some of those shots she blocks.
“It was exciting, but I really just try to protect the paint,” Turner reasoned. “We play a lot of zone, so I’m kind of sitting under the basket a lot. I just try to be prepared for whatever comes that way.”
Her coach was a little more stoked.
“I’m so happy for Bri because she takes so much pride in her defense, which is something we need a little more of on this team,” McGraw said, laughing.
“I think the team loves having her behind them,” McGraw added. “They know if they get beat, she’s going to block a shot. She has been just phenomenal in her presence defensively. This year, we brought her out and guarded the best player on the wing sometimes, so she can guard on the perimeter.”
As it so happens, the Defensive Player of the Year is also outrageously hot on offense lately.
Turner is 44-of-55 from the field over ND’s last six outings for a freakish 80 percent, averaging 18.0 points per game during that span.
That’s upped her season figures to 63.3 percent from the field — tops in the ACC, sixth in the nation — and 13.9 points.
Turner could leap from ninth to sixth on the Irish all-time scoring chart this weekend.
She’s at 1,873 points. Jewell Loyd (1,909), Kayla McBride (1,876) and Jacqueline Batteast (1,874) are those slightly ahead of her.
“She’s in a really good place,” McGraw said of Turner who has appeared particularly quick and agile of late, “and I think that’s what happens when you have to miss a year. It really helps you appreciate — and she’s always appreciated it anyway — but even more so this year, I think she’s just so happy to be out there.”
“I’m kind of like over the injuries in every way,” Turner said. “It’s in the past, so just looking forward to moving forward.”
WHO: No. 4 Notre Dame (27-3) vs. North Carolina (18-13) in ACC Tourney quarterfinal.
WHERE: Greensboro Coliseum (21,021), Greensboro, N.C.
WHEN: Friday, 2 p.m.
TV/WEB: RSN/ACC Network Extra.
RADIO: Pulse (103.1/96.9/92.1 FM).
NOTING: The winner of top-seeded Notre Dame vs. No. 8 seed North Carolina faces the winner of No. 4 seed/No. 16-ranked Miami (24-8) and No. 5 seed/No. 18-ranked Syracuse (23-7) in a noon semifinal Saturday on ESPNU. The survivor of that game plays in Sunday’s noon championship on ESPN2. Top teams in the other half of the bracket include No. 2 seed/No. 3-ranked Louisville (27-2) and No. 3/No. 9-ranked North Carolina State (25-4). … The Tar Heels beat likewise short-handed Georgia Tech 80-73 in Thursday’s second round (the top four seeds have double byes). Carolina won despite center Janelle Bailey (16.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg) serving a one-game disciplinary suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct in her last game and despite Stephanie Watts (15.2 ppg) sitting out with what the program described as a “day-to-day” injury, so both players could be back Friday. The Heels are led by senior guard Paris Kea (16.8 ppg, 4.0 apg), who lit up the Irish for 30 points and 10 assists on her way to winning national player of the week honors when Carolina stunned ND 78-73 on Jan. 27. Syala Bennett and Taylor Koenen are averaging a combined 20.6 points and 10.6 rebounds for the Heels, while Leah Church had a career-high 20 points in Thursday’s win. … Irish leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (21.4 ppg), Jessica Shepard (16.1 ppg, 9.9 repg), Jackie Young (14.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 5.2 apg), Marina Mabrey (14.2 ppg, 4.7 apg, 64-of-142 on 3s for 45.1 percent) and Brianna Turner (13.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.7 bpg). … Mabrey needs four 3-pointers to pass Alicia Ratay (262) as ND’s all-time leader, while Ogunbowale is 20-of-38 outside the arc over her last six games. … The Irish won the ACC Tourney each of their first four seasons in the league before falling 74-72 to Louisville in last year’s title game.
QUOTING: “I don’t think ever. We count on everybody, but one person could have an off night and we’ll be fine. I think they can pick up the slack for each other, and it takes the pressure off of them, because nobody has to do it alone.” — Muffet McGraw on the last time she’s had five starters performing this effectively.