Notre Dame's Anaya Peoples in groove everywhere but free throw line

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Anaya Peoples is hitting 49% of her free throws, yet she morphs into 94% giggles when she talks about it, and sounds 100% sure it’s going to get better.

The predictably peppy Peoples, Notre Dame’s freshman guard and hottest women’s basketball player, was her typical self Tuesday afternoon before practice, even when asked about that one sore spot in her game.

“Believe it or not, I won a free throw contest when I was a little girl,” Peoples offered with those giggles beginning to flow mid-sentence, “so I need to bring back that (touch).”

That contest came around eighth grade, and Peoples drained “around” 23-of-25.

Furthermore, “I come in here in practice and knock ’em down, 23, 24, 25 (in a row),” Peoples declared. “It’s just something about stepping on the court in front of everybody, but I mean, I’m gonna grow. It’s an area of improvement that I can work on.”

Peoples even volunteers that her last season of high school play for Schlarman Academy in Danville, Ill., “wasn’t that great” at the line, either, though she can’t recollect the numbers.

Turns out she went 114-of-161 for 71%, indeed not that great, but not that bad, either.

“I remember I had this problem in the state championship game, and I just had to laugh at it,” Peoples continued, “because (making free throws) is one of the easiest things in the world, and I’m like, really?”

Actually, in the state championship, she was 2-of-3. Maybe she’s referring to the state semifinal, in which she went 8-of-13, or to her junior year state semifinal and final games, in which she went a combined 8-of-17.

Doesn’t matter. All four games were double-digit victories, and three of them were wins by at least 17 points, as Schlarman claimed back-to-back state crowns.

“Yeah,” Peoples agreed of whether winning those games makes it easier to laugh.

She quickly adds that “it’s not going to be too funny” if her free throws do end up costing her team down the road, though.

For now, Notre Dame will take its chances.

Peoples starred for the Irish during their Cancun Challenge trip last week, unleashing the best three games any ND player has strung together this season and being rewarded for it Monday as the Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Week — despite her team going 1-2.

“It’s an honor, but it’s not the main goal,” Peoples said. “The main goal is to win, and (the award) is just a byproduct of great teammates and great coaches putting me in the right spot.”

Peoples averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.7 steals in Cancun to go with 63% field goal shooting. Even her free throws at 58% were a jump from the 44% she stood at before the trip.

“I think she’s doing everything well right now,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Tuesday.

“She’s scoring around the basket. Defensively, she always plays hard, but she came up with a lot of steals. She rebounded pretty well.”

In the Cancun finale, a 67-51 win over then-No. 21 South Florida, Peoples did those things coming off the bench, too, same as she did in a win at then-No. 21 Michigan a week earlier. She still played at least 30 minutes in each of her two non-starts.

McGraw said she will continue to consider bringing Peoples off the bench, and that the possibility could grow even more once center Mikayla Vaughn returns from a sprained knee in an estimated two more weeks.

“I love having almost our best player coming off the bench,” McGraw said, “because you look down the bench when things aren’t going well and you need a spark, you have somebody to go to.”

A five-star recruit, McDonald’s All-American and the reigning Illinois high school player of the year, Peoples insists that she doesn’t care whether she starts.

“I’m going to bring the energy either way,” she said, “because that’s what I feel like I can do for this team. Whatever Coach McGraw says, I’m going to be right there and I’m going to do it.”

What all the Irish (5-4) are going to do, she says, is keep on improving. The next chance comes Wednesday night when Minnesota (5-1) visits.

“I feel like each day we get better, so that’s just building our confidence,” Peoples said. “Each game, the offenses are clicking better, the defenses are starting to click.”

There is some urgency to the clicking, particularly in the context of the schedule. The matchup against the Gophers will be followed by Sunday’s visit to No. 4 Connecticut (6-0), then next Wednesday’s home game against No. 16 DePaul (6-1).

“We have some really big wins,” Peoples said. It’s just a matter of consistency right now, just coming out and playing each game how we played the (South Florida) game. … It’s coming soon, because we don’t like the taste of losing.”

Marta’s great eight

Peoples and McGraw were still marveling Tuesday at the eight charging fouls Marta Sniezek coaxed out of the opposition over Notre Dame’s final two games in Cancun.

“I mean, that’s insane,” Peoples said of the two-game figure, which included four in each outing.

“Pretty amazing. I’ve never seen that many (over a two-game span),” McGraw said.

Sniezek, ND’s graduate-student transfer guard from Stanford, upped her season total to 12 successful charges drawn this season, based on play-by-play data.

While charges taken are not an official NCAA stat, McGraw estimated that the single-season Irish high under her watch is the “18 to 20” that Kristina Nelson drew two seasons ago.

“I can’t say enough about her,” Peoples said of Sniezek, who is averaging just 4.0 points, but whose 4.9 assists are more than three times more than anybody else on the team. “She is what holds us together. She does a lot of things that don’t come up in the stat column. … She’s just an all-around great teammate, like a mom, a coach on the court. She’s literally everything we could ask for.”

Not least of all, she’s an inspiration, if her coach has her way.

“She’s making things happen, diving for balls, just abusing her body,” McGraw said, “and I’m hoping it’s contagious and more people can start doing the same.”

Sniezek said last week that the injury risk to taking a charge is minimized “if you know how to do it.”

“If you take it the right way, they don’t hurt,” Sniezek said. “I think you gotta do what you can on the defensive end, so just trying to get the calls, and it’s something I love to do.”

Nevertheless, with the Irish down to just seven healthy scholarship players for now, should Sniezek ease up just a pinch?

“I think that’s the way we have to play,” McGraw countered. “If she can be a leader doing that, I think she needs to continue.”

Notre Dame guard Anaya Peoples in action against Michigan on Nov. 23 in Ann Arbor, Mich.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Minnesota (5-1) vs. Notre Dame (5-4).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Wednesday, 8 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

TV: ACC Network.

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

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: The Golden Gophers have won five straight since their season-opening 77-69 loss to now-No. 22 Missouri State, but Wednesday’s contest will be their first away game. … Minnesota’s balanced attack includes six players averaging at least 9.5 points and is paced by 5-10 junior swing Destiny Pitts, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year who was an all-league first-teamer last season. Pitts is averaging 15.5 points and 3.8 assists to go with 17-of-38 on 3-pointers and 18-of-20 at the line. Other leaders include 6-2 senior forward Taiye Bello (12.5 ppg, 9.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 72% field goals, 83% free throws), freshman guard Jasmine Powell (12.2 ppg, 3.7 apg, 85% FT), junior guard Gadiva Hubbard (11.2 ppg, 2.2 steals), senior guard Jasmine Brunson (10.2 ppg, 2.2 spg) and freshman guard Sara Scalia (9.5 ppg, 10-of-20 on 3s). … The Gophers are in their second season under Minnesota alum Lindsay Whalen, who took over in 2018 on the direct heels of wrapping up her 15-year WNBA playing career. A four-time WNBA champ and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Whalen capped her college career in 2004 by leading the Gophers to their only Final Four appearance. She left atop the school’s all-time scoring chart and was No. 2 in assists. … Irish leaders include sophomore Katlyn Gilbert (14.9 ppg, 2.0 spg), freshman Anaya Peoples (14.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.0 spg), Destinee Walker (13.7 ppg, 1.8 spg), Sarah Brunelle (13.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Marta Sniezek (4.9 apg, 1.3 charges coaxed per game). … Minnesota and ND are meeting for just the third time ever, and for the first time in the regular season. The Gophers, as a No. 10 seed on each occasion, upset seventh-seeded host Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 1994 and 2009. Minnesota’s the only Big Ten school that the Irish have never beaten. … The game is part of this season’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge. ND is 6-0 in such games.

QUOTING: “Absolutely, because last year was like a relief. You were supposed to win, move on, what’s next? Now it’s like, ‘Let’s enjoy this for an hour or so before we get to work on the next one.’” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on whether victories are easier to savor this season.