Notre Dame women's team searching for confidence

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Muffet McGraw’s not accustomed to losing at this rate, but then, neither are most of her Notre Dame women’s basketball players.

Still, players and head coach alike seemed in a fairly festive mood — one even befitting New Year’s Day — as they headed into practice Wednesday afternoon just ahead of their flight to Pittsburgh.

“Practices have been really good, these last couple ones,” freshman Anaya Peoples said with her usual chipper smile. “I’m excited. We’re going to get on the road and hopefully put (the practices) into play, the little things, boxing out, rebounding, talking. I mean, we’re excited to really focus on those things.”

The Irish (5-8, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) have lost four straight games as they get set to visit the likewise laboring Panthers (3-9, 0-1) on Thursday.

For McGraw, it’s her first four-game losing streak in 25 years, and it’s just one short of matching the longest skid in her 38-year career overall, that actually coming over two seasons when ND lost its last three of 1990-91 and first two of 1991-92.

“Losing’s not easy for anyone,” McGraw said, “but the good thing about this team is they all look at themselves. Nobody points fingers at anybody else. The coaches are in there trying to figure out, what can we do better? I think we’re all trying to figure it out and help everybody that’s on the floor to just rise to the occasion.

“We need somebody to just have a big game, and it is in us,” McGraw continued. “I think the ability is in us. It’s just a question of how do we get it out, and I think a lot of it is confidence. Our confidence is definitely not where it needs to be. That’s something the coaches can do, help build their confidence.”

It’s the kind of building that’s not always been needed in Notre Dame women’s basketball.

Most of the program’s players arrive with their confidence ablaze. They’re typically among the nation’s highest-regarded recruits and they’ve typically won big in high school.

Peoples arrived not only as the No. 8-rated player nationally by Prospects Nation, but on the heels of leading Schlarman Academy in Danville, Ill., to back-to-back Class 1A state titles.

With the Irish, she’s already lost nearly three times as many games as she lost in her last two high school seasons combined.

“It is hard,” Peoples admitted of the defeats. “We’re not used to this losing. We don’t like it, we don’t want to, so we’re trying to do everything we can to turn it around — right now, starting the new year.”

The Irish haven’t won a game that counts since Nov. 30 (they did win an exhibition on Dec. 21), and they’ve had more time than usual to figure out why.

First-semester exams ended Dec. 20 and second-semester classes don’t start until Jan. 13.

Players were turned loose for holiday travel on Dec. 21, but had to be back on campus Dec. 26.

“We just talk about holding each other accountable,” Peoples said of what she and her teammates have done with some of their extra time. “If somebody’s not in the right spot or doesn’t know the play, tell them. Say, ‘I need you here, I need you to be with us this game, I need you,’ so it’s really just holding each other accountable and making sure we all do the little things.”

McGraw says she has seen encouraging practice habits all along.

It just hasn’t translated to games between a largely inexperienced team and one that has battled an assortment of injuries.

“The good thing is the team attitude has been terrific,” McGraw said. “I mean they’ve been just really positive. I think they’re working really hard. We don’t have any issues with our chemistry or anything like that, so that makes it a little bit easier.”

So does the level of commitment.

“I do think they’re all looking at themselves to see, what can they do to help? How can they player better?” McGraw said. “You see them in here a half an hour before practice. They’re getting shots up, they’re doing everything they need to do.”

Peoples says she’s been viewing her time off from course work as a luxury rather than something that might lead to even more stewing over the losses.

“It’s nice not having any classes right now,” Peoples said with a smile. “Just coming in the gym. I can get here early, can stay after, not worrying about study halls or classes. It’s a nice feeling. I looked forward to this feeling.”

Destinee down

The team’s injury situation continues to work like a revolving door, one whose use always seems to prompt a corresponding use.

Destinee Walker, who has started all 13 games this season and is averaging 12.8 points, was expected to sit out Wednesday’s practice due to back spasms and is “questionable” for Thursday’s contest, according to McGraw.

Fellow grad transfer guard and team assist leader Marta Sniezek, who missed Sunday’s loss to Clemson, was back in practice Wednesday after recently battling plantar fasciitis.

McGraw said she was hopeful that Sniezek would be able to play Thursday.

Sniezek’s first missed regular-season game came in the same one that saw junior center Mikki Vaughn return to the court for the first time since the season opener.

Board hoard

Peoples’ rebounding has rated among the season’s highlights, and perhaps nobody’s more surprised by it than the 5-foot-10 guard herself.

She’s at 8.2 boards per game to lead the team by nearly two per outing.

“If you would have told me coming in that I would rebound this much,” said Peoples, who averaged 7.9 boards as a high school senior, “I don’t think I would’ve believed you, just because of the competition. I used to be the tallest on the court, and now I’m like, whoa. There’s some 6-5, 6-8 girls out there, so I didn’t expect it, but I’m embracing it, and I’m ready for that challenge.”

She says her production has been derived from perceiving a team need.

“If they need me to rebound, I’m going to go out there and I’m going to get hit in the mouth and do whatever I can to get these rebounds for them and push it up the court,” Peoples said.

“Whatever they need me to do, I’m going to do it for them.”

Notre Dame’s Anaya Peoples (21) grabs a rebound from Minnesota’s Taiye Bello (5) during the Dec. 4 game at Purcell Pavilion. Peoples and the Irish look at the new year as a fresh start.
Notre Dame’s Destinee Walker is questionable against Pittsburgh because of back spasms.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Notre Dame (5-8, 0-1 ACC) vs. Pittsburgh (3-9, 0-1).

WHERE: Petersen Events Center (12,508), Pittsburgh.

WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.

TV/WEB: ACCNX.

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

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTRE DAME VS. PITTSBURGH

NOTING: The Panthers have lost five straight and seven of their last eight, while the Irish have dropped four straight and six of their last seven. ... Notre Dame has played six teams either ranked or drawing votes in the latest Associated Press poll, going 1-5 in those games, while Pittsburgh has not played any such teams. ... Senior guard Aysia Bugg leads the Panthers at 14.5 points per game and is 29-of-79 on 3s for 37%. Three freshmen are making significant contributions in Amber Brown (11.6 ppg, 8.3 rebounds), Dayshanette Harris (9.8 ppg, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals) and 6-4 forward Rita Igbokwe, who in her last seven games is averaging 7.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 4.3 points. ... Irish leaders include Katlyn Gilbert (15.1 ppg, 1.9 spg), Anaya Peoples (14.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.9 spg), Sam Brunelle (13.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Destinee Walker (12.8 ppg). ... Notre Dame has won 10 straight meetings against Pittsburgh, each by double digits, and leads the all-time series 27-3. The Panthers’ last victory over the Irish was 82-70 at home on Feb. 3, 2009.

QUOTING: “I think it’s going into every game knowing this game’s going to be a dogfight. Every single game. Last year, you could look at some games and say we could play poorly and still win that game. We have to play great to win every single game.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, elaborating Wednesday on what she meant after the Clemson loss when she declared that the entire season will be a struggle.