Irish starters keep fouls to a minimum

Anthony Anderson | Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

Jessica Shepard averages 1.9. Brianna Turner and Marina Mabrey follow, each at 1.7. Arike Ogunbowale checks in at 1.6. Jackie Young’s at a scant 1.4.

In this case, the smaller, the better.

Those numbers are how many fouls per game Notre Dame’s five starters commit.

Foul rates may not be as glamorous as all those other figures the Irish basketball women post, but they are the ones that help enable those other figures.

“We all know we want to be on the court,” Young said this past weekend of the foul numbers, “so I think it’s just trying to play smart the whole game and stay in there.”

“They know they’re coming out when they get two fouls (early),” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said, “so they do their best to try to stay in the game. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”

In fact, no starter has fouled out of a game in the last two seasons for the top-seeded Irish (32-3), who continue their quest for a second straight national championship Saturday when they face No. 4 seed Texas A&M (26-7) in a Chicago Regional semifinal at Wintrust Arena.

Young says the foul avoidance begins with tight officiating in workouts.

“Beth and CO,” Young said of ND assistants Beth Cunningham and Carol Owens, “they’re always calling fouls in practice, so we just try to take practice as you would a game. We want to have habits that will carry over into the game.”

As a group, the Irish average just 13.1 fouls per contest, sixth-fewest in the nation among 349 Division I teams. Connecticut leads at 11.9.

ND’s five usual starters have especially low foul rates. Though they’ve played 71.6 percent of the minutes this season, they’ve committed just 60.2 percent of the fouls.

Those starters commit a foul only once every 18.1 minutes on the court. The rest of the roster has a combined norm of once every 10.8.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some iffy times along the way for the starters.

Rather, there have been 15 occasions of a usual starter closing a game with four fouls (Mabrey’s done so five times, Shepard four, Ogunbowale three, Turner two and Young once), yet never has any of them picked up that dreaded and disqualifying fifth.

A deeper bench than a year ago has helped in some instances.

That deeper bench also has helped — though not necessarily as much as the starters’ ability to put many games away before the fourth quarter — when it comes to the starters trimming their minutes this season in hopes of a fresher unit for postseason.

A year ago, Young, Ogunbowale and Mabrey all averaged at least 34.3 minutes per game. This season, Ogunbowale is tops on the team at 32.5, followed by Young at 31.6.

Unlike a year ago, nobody’s had to get close to the full 40 minutes on a regular basis, and even if the foul rates are calculated on a full 40, Shepard’s starter-worst of 2.7 is still manageable.

That’s followed by Turner at 2.5 per 40.

The Irish defensive ace, in fact, is almost twice as likely to block a shot (she has 96) as she is to commit a foul (she has 59), something rare in college basketball.

“I know if I’m blocking a shot to be sure to just stick my hands up — no body,” Turner said of her technique. “(We’re all) just making sure we’re careful with ourselves.”

Turner and Ogunbowale each say avoiding fouls is part of game management for the Irish.

“We like to try to get through the first half with like no fouls,” Turner said, “and then in the second half you kind of play a little more freely.”

“You know you don’t want to come out of the game,” Ogunbowale said of the consequence that accompanies a couple early fouls. “You know your team still needs you. I think in the second half you come (more) with the mindset that you’re going to play the principles, (but still) try not to foul.”

For all their planning and all their self-discipline, though, these Irish do still get nervous about fifth fouls.

Eerily, Ogunbowale and Turner in unison made a motion like they were knocking on wood when it was mentioned to them together last week that no ND starter has fouled out of a game.

“Well, I hope you don’t jinx us,” McGraw said with a smile when it was mentioned to her.

Young says last season, when Notre Dame was down to seven scholarship players for the final three-plus months, proved good practice for this season.

“There were only a few of us that could play, so it kind of carried over to this year,” Young said. “We wanted to stay out of foul trouble. We still do, but we also want to be aggressive.”

At the same time the Irish are not committing many fouls, they’re also drawing a bunch on the opposition.

Notre Dame leads the nation in free throw attempts at 758 and is second in makes with 557, good for 73.5 percent.

Opponents have attempted 115 fewer free throws than the Irish have made, standing 316-of-442 for 71.5 percent.

“(That’s) the other end,” McGraw said of the fouling equation, “trying to get to the foul line. I think we’re doing a really good job of that, too.”

Notre Dame’s Jackie Young, shown driving against Michigan State Monday night, says staying in the game is motivation to commit less fouls.
Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner, right, says she uses all hands — no body — when going up for a block in order to avoid fouling.

“Beth and CO, they’re always calling fouls in practice, so we just try to take practice as you would a game. We want to have habits that will carry over into the game.”

Notre Dame guard Jackie Young of assistant coaches Beth Cunningham and Carol Owens

WHO: Notre Dame (32-3) vs. Texas A&M (26-7), followed by Stanford (30-4) vs. Missouri State (25-9) in NCAA Tournament regional semifinals.

WHERE: Wintrust Arena (10,387), Chicago.

WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m. and 6:30.

TICKETS: Available, $12 to $27 for Saturday only; $20 to $52 for both regional rounds (final round Monday at 9 p.m.).

TV: ESPN2.

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