Notre Dame women pumped, primed and peaking for NCAA run

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

Notre Dame was living in the moment Sunday, and for this team, that’s a good place to live.

Brianna Turner mimicked making snow angels while lying amid cascading balloons.

Jessica Shepard, as if the Greensboro Coliseum were her personal playground, plopped down and played with those many-colored, air-filled balls of latex.

Jackie Young, ever the versatile one, sent those balloons back up as if executing a set in volleyball.

With confetti also raining down, Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey joined in, too, each with boundless smiles that belied their assassin-esque mentalities, as the Irish celebrated winning the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s basketball tournament.

Yes, clearly, these ladies were living in the moment, smack in the moment, fully engaged.

When they do that, the rest of women’s college basketball is living in trouble.

Of course, a team’s level of celebration isn’t a fraction as telling, an iota as important, as its level of play when projecting what may lie ahead.

But this celebration was revealing. It showed a group that’s still hungry after already feasting on the ultimate celebration 11 months earlier.

This scene was telling us a bunch of hard work was poured into this, that there was a bunch of gratification over something well-earned.

As for strictly what Notre Dame’s level of play is telling us, have you watched the Irish lately?

It’s a level screaming that the Irish are pumped, primed and peaking.

Notre Dame, maybe with more bumps along its road this season than some might’ve expected, is fully ready to defend its national championship.

How did those bumps — losses to Connecticut, North Carolina and Miami — happen in a season some might’ve imagined the Irish running a bumpless table?

There may not be any one simple reason.

Certainly the levels of play by the Huskies, Heels and Hurricanes during those particular games comes to mind.

So, too, does the fact the Irish have worn a bull’s-eye framed in neon all season.

The absence of Young for the middle of those defeats can’t be ignored, either.

Still, Notre Dame probably wins at least the last two of those games if the Irish are at the time living in the moment, living and preparing fully attendant to the matter at hand.

Instead, maybe the Irish were bored at the moment.

It’s not that far-fetched, though it’s also certainly not to suggest this team hasn’t most of the time embraced the process that comes with a season.

It’s just that a season can get long. Really long.

Ogunbowale has acknowledged the grind on at least one occasion, and coach Muffet McGraw has said seasons are generally too long anyway.

Maybe it gets even longer when the previous one is capped by celebrations and salutations galore.

Maybe it gets longer when an offseason overseas trip that comes along only once every four or five years coincidentally comes in the same offseason you already won it all.

Maybe boredom knocks just a tap when the previous season entailed overcoming an almost unimaginable minefield of injuries, and the current one has, relatively speaking, never brought that particular kind of suspense.

To be sure, though, it’s not like the Irish parked on their plaudits, either.

Ogunbowale, even as she navigated the kind of sudden-celebrity trappings unprecedented in women’s basketball, remained a workout fiend.

A couple more examples include how Turner handled her wait and Shepard her weight. Turner, besides steadfastly staying supportive of last season’s club, steadfastly stuck to her rehabilitation as she embarked on her comeback from a serious knee injury.

Shepard shed 40 pounds — how’s that for a response to winning a national title? — in her quest to become even better this season.

These Irish obviously didn’t expect to get a back-to-back without getting back to work.

They just may have found themselves distracted at times. Distracted when they knew against certain teams they could, as McGraw has described it, “just outscore you.” Distracted when this postseason seemed so far away.

Here’s the beauty, though.

Other than elusive perfection, the Irish haven’t lost a thing.

They created their own suspense with the games they dropped, but ultimately, they still shared another ACC regular-season title, still grabbed the league’s No. 1 seed, still won the ACC Tourney and still, with it, likely wrapped up their preferred path of going through the Chicago Regional for the middle two rounds of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed.

Right now, even in the estimation of McGraw and her lofty standards, they’re shifting into top gear.

What Notre Dame’s done in its nine games since losing at Miami has been head-turning, even for a defending champion.

The Irish have won every one of those games by at least 18 points and won them by an average of 29. That’s with five of those games coming against ranked opponents.

There’s no doubting this team’s offense, No. 1 in the nation as of Wednesday at 89.0 points per outing, and No. 2 in field goal percentage at 51.8 (0.1 behind Iowa).

ND’s defense, though, is underrated. Really.

Admittedly, McGraw — again with those understandably high standards for this group — termed her team’s defense “deplorable” as recently as after the first half of the first round in the ACC Tournament.

Set aside, however, ND’s middle-of-the-road 64.0 points allowed per game. That’s a product of pace more than ineffectiveness.

It’s still a defense that can easily alter between zone and man depending on opponent.

It’s still a defense anchored by the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in Turner, with varied complementary pieces such as an on-ball hawk like Young and an off-ball reader like Ogunbowale.

It’s still a defense that ranks 49th of 349 Division I teams in overall field goal percentage allowed at 37.0, and 24th in 3-point percentage allowed at 27.8.

It’s still a defense that gets two more takeaways per game than its sometimes gamble-happy offense commits.

Finally, it’s still part of a net bottom line that has the Irish fourth in the country in average victory margin at 25.0.

Mind you, that margin has been crafted against the nation’s toughest schedule, by RPI or virtually any other measure.

ND is 10-2 vs. Associated Press ranked teams. That’s the nation’s most such wins, second-most games and it stands third in percentage (at least among teams with three such games) to Baylor’s 8-1 and Mississippi State’s 6-1.

Frankly, these Irish (30-3) have been far more dominant than last year’s national champions (35-3).

Obviously, losses don’t count toward this particular nugget, but have you noticed that Notre Dame has never won a game this season by only single digits?

Last season’s club piled up eight wins that way. The program record for fewest such wins is two.

As it so happens, even each of ND’s losses this winter have been by at least five.

Now, a warning — after last year, don’t go proposing that these Irish aren’t crunch-time-proven merely because of this season’s margins.

Clutch genes do not evaporate.

This roster still includes Arike Again-bowale, the ice-twice poster child of college basketball for clutch; Big Game Jackie, who carved up UConn for 32 points in last spring’s 91-89 national semifinal; and Shepard, almost perfect at 8-of-10 from the field, 3-of-3 at the line in last spring’s 61-58 championship.

Plus, Turner looks like she’s on a mission, and the next moment that Mabrey’s afraid of something on a basketball court will probably be her first.

The NCAA Tournament pairings will be revealed Monday night, further crystallizing what the Irish already know, that this grinding season is ticking down and they’re just six games — two in South Bend, two in Chicago, two in Tampa — from repeating.

Certainly there is no guarantee it’s going to happen — ask UConn, which looked unconquerable a year ago, and observe, among others, Baylor, which looks beastly these days.

Nevertheless, with the finish line now visible, it’s getting easier by the moment for these Irish to live in the moment.

If they continue to do that, in preparation and in play, chances are they’ll again be playing in balloons.

Notre Dame players, including Abby Prohaska (12), Jessica Shepard (32) and Jackie Young, right, celebrate their win over Louisville in the championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Sunday.
Notre Dame players Jackie Young (5), Marina Mabrey (3), Arike Ogunbowale (24), Brianna Turner (11) and Jessica Shepard (32) celebrate on the bench in the final moments of their win over Louisville in the final of the ACC women’s tourney.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

UP NEXT: NCAA Tournament selection show.

WHEN: Monday, 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN.