Notre Dame freshman Peoples has a defensive mindset

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Anaya Peoples may already be Notre Dame’s best defensive player, and one of its least defensive people.

“She’s a joy,” Irish women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw said of her freshman point guard following the team’s early-morning practice Thursday at the Joyce Center. “I mean, I can’t even get mad at her. Like you correct her on something and she goes, ‘Oh, yeah!’

“She’s the happiest person, and she just wants to get things right,” McGraw said. “She has that mindset. She’s never like, ‘Oh, man, I’m always doing it wrong.’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, got it, next time I’m going to do better.’ Great mindset.”

Defense on a basketball court is a hearty part of Peoples’ mindset.

During Notre Dame’s media day two weeks ago, she actually broke into a defensive stance as she discussed her love for that aspect of the game.

“No, I don’t (remember doing that), but I probably did,” a laughing Peoples said Thursday when reminded.

“You can feel the intensity when your teammates are all on the same page on defense and moving in sync,” she explained during that exchange a couple weeks ago, adjusting into her stance as she talked. “That just gets the whole offense started. Defense is probably my favorite part of the game ... defense wins championships.”

At Schlarman Academy in Danville, Ill., it helped Peoples win a pair.

The Hilltoppers went 66-3 over her final two seasons on the way to claiming back-to-back Class 1A state titles. The team gave up just 31.9 points per game last season.

Anaya’s high school head coach was her father, Keith Peoples, who played a lead role in his daughter’s basketball development, yet he doesn’t get all the credit.

“We just really emphasized defense in high school,” Peoples said. “My father, yes, but also (assistant coach Jerry O’Neill), he has ingrained it in me since freshman year, so it’s a habit. Coach O’Neill loves Notre Dame, by the way, and deserves a big shout-out for my defense.”

Count McGraw among those shouting.

“Anaya is our best defender,” McGraw said of Peoples, a 5-foot-10 mix of muscle and agility. “She’s a great defender. She’s active, she’s aggressive, she’s willing.”

The willing part is necessary to the other parts, and occasionally an elusive one.

“Most good players, especially in high school, their coaches don’t like them to get into foul trouble, so they are never really challenged to play defense,” McGraw said, “so their mindset is always ‘I’m going to outscore you.’ That’s just an offensive player’s mindset, which is mostly what we have — offensive players — so it’s really refreshing to see somebody like Anaya who actually likes defense and takes pride in her defense.”

Not that Peoples’ offense is lacking. She averaged 18.8 points per game for Schlarman last season, along with 7.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists, on her way to winning USA Today Illinois Player of the Year honors.

Ranked No. 8 nationally in her class by Prospects Nation and No. 21 by ESPN, Peoples shared team-high scoring honors for the West with 11 points in the McDonald’s All-American game last spring.

In 2018, she helped the U.S. go 6-0 and win the gold medal in the FIBA Americas U18 championships, averaging 5.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists.

Now as the beginning of her college playing career ticks near — the Irish open Tuesday at Fordham — it still remains to be seen if what Peoples has done at previous levels and in Notre Dame practices will translate to collegiate games.

“You don’t always know, but I feel really good about her right now,” McGraw said. “With a scrimmage and everything else we’ve done, we’ve been able to learn a lot about our players.”

If Peoples gets her way, defense will be a signature part of not just her game, but of her team’s as well.

“I think we’re all on the same page,” she said of the early returns. “If we see somebody going hard on defense, we don’t want to let them down, so we’re all picking our energy up to get that steal or that stop, because we know the next person is busting their butt trying to create havoc.”

As for her coach’s assessment that Peoples is ND’s best defensive player, the freshman intends to make it merely a starting point.

“Wow,” Peoples said of McGraw’s take. “She just motivates me when she says that. I just want to go out there and prove her right.”

Joyous Joyce

As sparkling, sprawling and spectacular as Notre Dame’s newly opened Rolfs Athletics Hall may be, McGraw’s affinity for conducting at least some practices at the Joyce Center — the team’s game-day home — is likely to remain.

“Oh yeah,” the coach said after Thursday’s crisp pre-class workout of about 90 minutes. “It’s one of the reasons we went this morning. It wasn’t available this afternoon. It’s only the third or fourth time we’ve been here. It’s hard with volleyball season and the men are playing (Friday).

You only get (first crack at) the arena the day before the game and the day of the game, so this week was hard to find a time.”

Reminded McGraw, “It’s great to be over (at Rolfs) and have five baskets and do a lot of different things, but we’re gonna play our games here and we have seven people who have never played a game in here.”

Furthermore, this particular season, the Irish need to acclimate themselves to the fact that there are two sets of 3-point lines now painted onto the game court.

The 3-point distance for NCAA Division I men’s play was moved back starting this season to 22 feet, 1.75 inches, while the women’s distance remains 20 feet, 9 inches.

The men’s arc at the Joyce Center is blue, while the women’s is white, somewhat blending with the court.

“The men’s line, that kind of throws the shooters off a little bit,” McGraw said, “so we need to get over here and get used to it, because they’re stopping at the men’s line.”

Poll position

Notre Dame, with all five starters from last season’s national runner-up team gone to the WNBA, landed at No. 16 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll.

It marks the first time the Irish have been outside the AP’s top eight at any point before or during a season since 2010-11, when they started No. 12, slipped as low as No. 18 and closed at No. 9.

As is standard with a Notre Dame women’s schedule, the Irish will likely get plenty of chances to show exactly how good they are. The docket features a whopping 12 games against fellow clubs ranked in the preseason Top 25.

Those ND opponents are No. 5 Connecticut, No. 9 Louisville (twice), No. 12 Florida State, No. 14 North Carolina State, No. 17 Michigan State, co-No. 18 DePaul, co-No. 18 Miami, No. 21 Syracuse (twice), No. 23 Minnesota and No. 25 Michigan.

Following Tuesday’s opener at Fordham, the Irish play four straight home games over a span of 13 days, beginning with Loyola of Maryland on Friday, Nov. 8.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw likes the defensive aspect of freshman guard Anaya Peoples’ game.