As big underdog, there's 'no pressure' for Notre Dame vs. Connecticut

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Marta Sniezek was there for a blink and then ... poof ... she was gone, and by then, there was nary another soul.

That covers how the player portion of a Notre Dame women’s basketball media availability transpired Friday afternoon, but as it so happens, it also succinctly summarizes the level of Connecticut-related experience these tenderfoot Irish (5-5) will carry into Sunday’s mountainous road challenge against the No. 4-ranked Huskies (7-0).

First, to further explain that pre-practice availability Friday, Sniezek — the only player requested by all of the half-dozen media there — happened to be running far later than anybody else, by maybe 15 minutes.

Then, literally less than a minute after she began to be interviewed, and with practice warm-ups already well under way for the rest of the team, Sniezek was whisked off with apologies to begin a tight-window treatment with a trainer that was described as routine.

The whole thing can’t be assumed as cloak and dagger against reporters as much as simple misfortune. After all, every other player was initially available, and comprehensive availability is fairly routine within this particular Irish program.

It’s just that Sniezek, though, is — get this — the only healthy ND player who has ever — ever — sniffed a moment of court time against vaunted UConn.

She got all 14 of those minutes two years ago while playing for Stanford in an early-season blowout loss. She did make her only shot that day, a 3-pointer, and dealt three assists.

As for the Huskies, they return a quartet of players — Megan Walker, Christyn Williams, Crystal Dangerfield and Olivia Nelson-Ododa — who put impactful marks all over last season’s split against Notre Dame, one that included an 89-71 regular-season road win and an 81-76 national semifinal loss.

The differences in the head-to-head backgrounds among the Irish and the Huskies maybe mirror the differences in the chances each team is being given Sunday.

“We haven’t been in the underdog role quite so drastically in probably 10 years,” ND coach Muffet McGraw said Friday, “so we go in with absolutely no pressure on us. There’s nobody probably in the country that thinks we can win this game, so I think for us, we gotta relax, maybe breathe a little bit, and maybe that’ll be good for us.”

The Irish — with their relatively raw team and with their seven scholarship players due to Mikayla Vaughn and Abby Prohaska still being sidelined — have dropped three of their last four games.

If they drop this one, it’ll mark the first time they’ve slipped below .500 this deep into a season since standing 6-7 in 1994-95.

UConn, meanwhile, hasn’t lost a home game to anybody since falling to none other than the Irish in a Big East Tournament finale in March 2013.

“You have to go in with confidence,” McGraw said of the message she’ll try to impart to her players this weekend. “You absolutely have to go in knowing you can win the game, and if you don’t, you’re going to lose it in the first quarter.”

Therein, though, lies one of ND’s issues. First quarters have decidedly been this team’s worst.

In six of their last eight games, it’s been the quarter the Irish have fared poorest in point differential, and in a seventh, it’s the quarter that shared that distinction. McGraw, the Hall of Famer with a 928-280 career record, has called the slow starts largely a mystery.

If anything, the short-bench Irish would seem more vulnerable to wearing down later in games, but they’ve actually outscored the opposition on the season in every quarter but the first.

Falling behind big has repeatedly wound up costly.

On Wednesday against Minnesota, ND trailed by 18 in the second quarter before rallying for a 57-56 lead midway through the fourth, only to lose 75-67.

Against No. 16 Michigan State last month, the Irish nosedived into a 13-point first-quarter hole, but charged back into position to tie before falling 72-69. In the Thanksgiving weekend Cancun Challenge, they were 16 down against South Dakota State by the third quarter, rallied for a 48-45 lead in the fourth, but lost 65-59.

After Wednesday’s game, McGraw declared that “we don’t have any pride in our defense at all.”

Compounding that problem, unlike recent years, ND has been far from a sure thing on offense, and that could be especially woeful against the Huskies if it continues.

“When you play Connecticut, you gotta score,” McGraw said of what will be most essential Sunday. “The teams that have given them good games — Ohio State gave them a good game (before falling 73-62) — they could score some points, so that’s a little bit of a worry. We’ve only ever outscored them. We’ve never really defended them.”

At 65.9 points per game this season, the Irish are on pace for their lowest average in 14 years.

They’ve not been below 77.0 in any of the last 11 seasons.

The lowest-shooting ND team outside the arc in those 11 seasons landed at 33.4%, but this year’s club is at a frighteningly frigid 22.8%.

The team’s two most frequent long-ball launchers are even lower, with Sam Brunelle 12-of-56 for 21.4% and Destinee Walker 10-of-44 for 22.7%.

“Our best shooters aren’t getting (good) looks,” McGraw said. “I think Sam’s obviously somebody we want to shoot a lot of 3s. Destinee’s somebody we want to shoot a lot of 3s.

They’re just not getting the looks that we need them to get the way the defense is guarding us.”

With Vaughn, ND’s 6-3 junior center, still out due to a sprained knee suffered in the Nov. 5 season opener, defenses are guarding without fear of the Irish inside.

“It’s really difficult without a post presence because teams can just switch everything,” McGraw said. “There’s no advantage that we have on the block to even taking a guard down there. Most teams are switching everything and not leaving us open anywhere we want to get the ball.”

Furthermore, most teams, if not all, are doing what they’ve been doing to the Irish without the collection of talent the Huskies will unleash Sunday.

Notre Dame’s Marta Sniezek (13) chases down a loose ball during against Toledo Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.
Connecticut forward Megan Walker (3), putting up a shot against Seton Hall’s Mya Jackson Dec. 5, in South Orange, N.J., is averaging 21 points a game.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Notre Dame (5-5) vs. No. 4 Connecticut (7-0).

WHERE: Gampel Pavilion (9,882), Storrs, Conn.

WHEN: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

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

NOTRE DAME VS. CONNECTICUT

NOTING: Huskie leaders are junior forward Megan Walker (21.6 points per game, 8.3 rebounds, 17-of-36 on 3s), sophomore guard Christyn Williams (17.0 ppg, 52% field goals), senior point guard Crystal Dangerfield (13.4 ppg, 3.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 13-of-32 on 3s) and 6-5 sophomore forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa (11.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 4.3 blocks). … Dangerfield has missed the last two games due to back spasms, but coach Geno Auriemma said after Thursday’s 92-78 win at Seton Hall that he expected her to play Sunday. … Freshman swing Aubrey Griffin came off the bench to collect 25 points and 12 rebounds against the Pirates. ... Leading the Irish on the season are Katlyn Gilbert (14.9 ppg), Sam Brunelle (13.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Destinee Walker (13.5 ppg), Anaya Peoples (13.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Marta Sniezek (4.6 ppg, 5.2 apg). … While Notre Dame’s already faced currently ranked teams three times, going 1-2, UConn’s not encountered a rated club yet. The Huskies, though, have played five of their seven games on the road, and won all of their seven by at least 11 points. … Connecticut leads the all-time series 37-13 and has taken five straight regular-season meetings since ND’s triple-overtime victory in March 2013, but Notre Dame has ousted the Huskies in national semifinals each of the last two seasons. … Sunday’s matchup will serve as ESPN’s Jimmy V Women’s Classic for the fifth time in six years.

QUOTING: “I have to be less frustrated, which is hard, but really, I need to be more patient. I need to be understanding.’” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on guiding a team that already has lost more games than the Irish dropped in any of the previous eight seasons.