Offense may be lacking for Notre Dame women, but defense, Sniezek is stepping up

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame may not be playing especially aesthetic basketball on offense right now — coach Muffet McGraw says her young team is even struggling to get to “the right spots on the simplest” sets — but the Irish are proving feisty on defense.

Nowhere has that feisty been more personified than through Marta Sniezek.

That’s true even when there’s not a favorable call to match the feisty effort.

Sniezek was called for blocking fouls twice on collisions and spills of the bone-jarring, floor-jarring variety during Wednesday’s 54-51 comeback victory over Toledo.

“I love that about her,” McGraw said Friday before practice of the grad-student transfer’s willingness to stand in against concrete contact.

“I thought both of those could’ve gone either way,” McGraw said of the blocking calls on Sniezek against the Rockets. “It was unfortunate that they both went against us, but she’s been getting in good position. She’s doing everything we need her to do defensively, and she’s smart enough to take (some risks) and still be good with her fouls.”

Sniezek went the route of diplomacy Friday when asked to review those two block-charge decisions, but the point guard’s answer still shed light on just how close they were.

“Well, they were called blocks, so they’re blocks,” Sniezek said with a shrug and a smile, “but you know, I guess they could’ve gone either way. The ref told me they could’ve gone either way, and that he’ll look at them again, but they were called blocks and I’m fine with that. It’s a risk you take for your team.”

Other risks besides a foul call would seem to be pain and injury.

“If you take it the right way, they don’t hurt,” insisted Sniezek, a Pac-12 all-defensive honorable mention pick in 2018 at Stanford who has successfully coaxed charging calls on multiple occasions this season. “I think you gotta do what you can on the defensive end. Just trying to get the calls, and it’s something I love to do.”

While she didn’t get those most recent calls, the 5-foot-8 Sniezek did make a pair of steals against Toledo and added a blocked shot.

As a team, the Irish forced the Rockets, who led by nine points in the second quarter, into at least five shot-clock violations among 21 turnovers overall.

Three of the clock expirations came during a stifling fourth quarter in which Notre Dame outscored Toledo 13-7 and limited the visitors to 3-of-14 shooting.

It was a distinctly different type of win for the Irish, who are without the offensive firepower they’ve oozed in recent years, including when they averaged 88.6 points last season.

ND’s 54 points against Toledo were its fewest — in a win or a loss — since a 54-42 victory over Georgia Tech in January 2016.

Further, before this season, the Irish had not allowed fewer than 60 points during a single-digit win, or in any loss, since beating Mississippi State 61-58 in the 2018 national title game.

They’ve recorded two such wins this season after having just two over the previous four years combined.

“I think this year’s going to continue to be very different,” McGraw said. “We’re averaging somewhere in the 60s (66.2, against 62.4 allowed), and I think that’s about what we’re going to be, so hopefully, we can rely on our defense, which we did play very well in the fourth quarter (against Toledo).”

Against the Rockets, the Irish used both man-to-man and zone — a near essential with just seven healthy scholarship players and limited interior defenders.

The coach said she was pleased with both types, at least much of the time.

“The zone, I thought we got some good traps out of it, and our communication was improved,” McGraw said. “I think we’re covering more ground, starting to learn the slides a little better, so I saw some big improvement in the zone.”

As for the other end of the court, Sniezek says the mistakes Notre Dame is making are “absolutely correctable.”

“Like Coach says a lot, we beat ourselves,” Sniezek said, “so we’re just working on the kinks on offense and trying to get better every single day.”

In the meantime, “I think we are definitely priding ourselves on defense, and we have to continue to do that,” Sniezek said. “I’m very proud of our team and how we’ve played.”

On to Michigan

The Irish — 0-2 against currently ranked teams and 3-0 against currently unranked teams — take another stab at beating the former when they visit No. 21 Michigan (4-0) for a 1 p.m. tip Saturday.

The Wolverines feature the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 6-foot-2 forward Naz Hillmon.

Michigan won each of its first three games by at least 20 points, then added an 80-71 win last weekend at Akron. The Wolverines have not played a ranked opponent yet.

Ultra-efficient, Hillmon is averaging 17.0 points and 8.3 rebounds to go with 67% shooting from the field and 16-of-18 at the line.

Last season, she was sixth in the nation in field goal percentage at 62.8, and was the only freshman among the top 50 in that category.

“She’s really good,” McGraw said of Hillmon, the daughter of 1994 Ohio Miss Basketball and ex-Vanderbilt standout Na’Sheema (Hillmon) Anderson. “She’s probably the key to their team. She’s somebody who can score a lot of ways, and she’s strong, physical, can put it on the floor a little bit, handles traps really well.”

Bracketology already

It seems absurdly early, but ESPN’s Charlie Creme is already revealing NCAA Tournament bracket projections.

Changes will abound, but his outlooks typically include in-depth reasons and at the end of the season come close to what the selection committee decides.

Creme has Notre Dame as the No. 9 seed in the Portland quadrant and bound for a first-round date in Eugene, Ore., against No. 8 South Dakota.

Oregon is the No. 1 seed in that quad, with Baylor No. 1 in Dallas, Connecticut No. 1 in Greenville, S.C., and Oregon State No. 1 in Fort Wayne, the obviously preferred regional destination for the Irish.

In order to earn home games for the first two rounds, teams have to be top-four seeds.

Michigan, ND’s opponent Saturday, is listed as the No. 7 seed in Dallas.

Notre Dame’s Marta Sniezek (13) chases down a loose ball during against Toledo Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

WHO: Notre Dame (3-2) vs. No. 21 Michigan (4-0).

WHERE: Crisler Center (12,707), Ann Arbor, Mich.

WHEN: Saturday, 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Plenty available, $6 to $8.

TV/Web: BTN-Plus.

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

NOTRE DAME VS. MICHIGAN

NOTING: The Wolverines are led by 6-2 sophomore forward Naz Hillmon (17.0 points per game, 8.3 rebounds), 6-1 senior forward Kayla Robbins (11.5 ppg, 2.0 steals) and 6-0 sophomore guard Amy Dilk (10.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 5.3 assists). Five other players are averaging 5.3 to 9.8 points, including 6-4 freshman Izabel Varejao from Brazil. Varejao, the niece of longtime NBA player Anderson Varejao, is also at 2.5 blocks in 16.4 minutes per game. ... Michigan is 55-5 in its last 60 home contests. ... Irish leaders include freshman Sam Brunelle (16.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg), sophomore Katlyn Gilbert (16.0 ppg, 2.2 spg), grad transfer Destinee Walker (12.6 ppg, 1.8 spg), freshman Anaya Peoples (12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and grad transfer Marta Sniezek (5.4 apg, 1.8 spg). ... Notre Dame’s won the last three and six of its last seven meetings against the Wolverines, the most recent being an 83-63 road victory two years ago. Michigan’s last win was 63-59 in overtime 11 years ago in Ann Arbor.

QUOTING: “They’re a great team, and every team we play, we’re gonna get their best game, but I think more importantly, we’re focused right now on what we’re doing and what we can do. We need to keep putting in the effort and the heart on defense, and the offense will come.” — Marta Sniezek, Notre Dame guard, on Michigan.