Has home 'pressure' bothered Notre Dame?

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Being “home, sweet home” has become more like “home, sweat being home” for Notre Dame this season.

So much so that the Irish land in a 1% club when crunching home-away numbers among the nation’s 351 NCAA Division I women’s basketball teams.

Just three of those 351 — Notre Dame, Green Bay and Liberty — entered Saturday standing below .500 in home games while being above .500 in true road games.

The Irish (9-14, 4-7 Atlantic Coast Conference), who will be seeking their first three-game winning streak of the season when Pittsburgh (4-18, 1-10) visits Sunday, are 5-4 in true road contests and 3-8 at Purcell Pavilion.

That 3-8 represents an astonishing nosedive for a program that roared to a 160-8 record at Purcell over the previous 10 years.

“I really think,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday about one of her youngest, least experienced and most depth-challenged groups ever, “that there’s a little bit of pressure on them that they put on themselves to win for our fans.

“We are so thankful for our fans, and so grateful that they keep coming back even though we’re struggling,” McGraw continued. “We really want to win for them, and sometimes, you’re almost trying too hard. You can’t just kind of relax like you can on the road.”

Junior center Mikki Vaughn, though her own stats are among those markedly better on the road this season than at home, isn’t placing much stock in home-away distinctions for herself or for her team.

“That could be,” Vaughn said of whether there’s extra pressure at home, “but I think the season’s just been difficult in general. We’re trying to find our groove anywhere. I think it’s happenstance that we’ve won more on the road than at home.”

Admittedly, the Irish schedule grades out to date as more difficult at home than away, but even with that said, ND’s home losses include Clemson (which is 7-16 overall, 2-8 away) and its road wins include Michigan (which is 15-7 overall, 11-2 at home).

Notre Dame’s victory percentages of .273 at home and .556 away account for the second-widest gap in the country among teams with a better away mark. It’s surpassed only by Brown, which is .200 at home and .500 away, with the Bears’ figures possibly skewed by the fact they’ve played only five home games.

Overall, just 36 of the nation’s 351 teams have a better away record than home record, and for 33 of those clubs — unlike ND, Green Bay (4-6, 6-4) and Liberty (4-5, 6-4) — they’re either over or under .500 both home and away, or at .500 home or away.

If ever an opponent did represent strictly on paper a prime chance for the Irish to ring up a home win, it might be the Panthers on Sunday.

Not only is Pittsburgh 0-7 on the road this season, but Notre Dame is 13-0 all-time against the Panthers at home. Further, the Irish already beat host Pitt 60-52 on Jan. 2.

“Oh, my God,” McGraw said with a laugh of whether there’s any chance the Irish look past the Panthers. “What’s our record? We can’t look past anyone. We’ve never really looked past anyone over the years, but we’ve always had that leadership to help us not look past anyone, but with this group, a young team, you never know.”

Brunelle questionable

A missing Sam Brunelle could make the Pitt challenge steeper.

The freshman standout was deemed “questionable” for the game by McGraw. Brunelle, recovering from strep throat, was not expected to practice Saturday afternoon after being quarantined Friday.

She’s averaging 13.7 points and 6.1 rebounds on the season, and among regulars, is ND’s top 3-point shooter in both makes (35) and percentage (26.9).

Recruit update

McGraw confirmed that Irish recruit Nat Marshall underwent ACL knee surgery around late November or early December, adding that the 6-foot-5 forward “will be fine” well before next season arrives.

“It’s about an eight-month (recovery),” McGraw said.

Marshall is joined by Amirah Abdur-Rahim, Alli Campbell, Alasia Hayes and Maddy Westbeld in an ND recruiting class that ESPN ranks No. 3 collectively.

“Maddy’s really playing well, made the McDonald’s All-American team, which we are thrilled to see,” McGraw said of Westbeld being among the 24 selections.

“Alli Campbell is setting Pennsylvania scoring records, so she’s playing really well,” McGraw continued. “Alasia’s got some great stats, has looked really good. Amirah, I just saw her a couple weeks ago. She’s kind of what we’re missing with a little bit of size (6-2) to go with a little bit of ability to guard on the perimeter, which helps in the press. She’s probably a little better athlete than what we have now.”

ESPN rates Westbeld No. 23 nationally, Campbell No. 25, Marshall No. 32 and Hayes No. 44 among its top 100 recruits in the class of 2020.

Prospects Nation slots Marshall at No. 19, Campbell No. 21 and Westbeld No. 27.

Purcell Pavilion hasn’t been kind to the Notre Dame women’s team this season.

WHO: Pittsburgh (4-18, 1-10 ACC) vs. Notre Dame (9-14, 4-7).

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

WHEN: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $25.

TV: ACC Network.

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

PITTSBURGH VS. NOTRE DAME

NOTING: The Panthers have lost 14 of their last 15, the exception being a 53-48 win on Jan. 30 over Wake Forest, the same team that ND escaped, 75-71, on Thursday. … Pittsburgh leaders are grad-student guard Aysia Bugg (12.1 points per game, 43-of-128 on 3-pointers for 34%), freshman guard Dayshanette Harris (10.4 ppg, 2.6 assists, 1.7 steals), junior guard Gabbie Green (9.6 ppg, 44-of-133 on 3s for 33%) and freshman swing Amber Brown (8.6 ppg, 8.2 rebounds). Rita Igbokwe, a 6-4 freshman, is collecting 6.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in just 18.0 minutes per outing to go with a 4.1 scoring average. … Irish leaders include Destinee Walker (13.9 ppg), who is coming off a 22-point second half at Wake, Katlyn Gilbert (13.8 ppg, 2.0 steals), Sam Brunelle (13.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Mikki Vaughn (11.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Marta Sniezek (5.6 assists, 2.0 steals and a program-record 29 drawn charges). … Notre Dame leads the all-time series over the Panthers 28-3 with 11 straight wins. Pitts’s last victory came in February 2009.

QUOTING: “I thought the best thing was it was a close game throughout and we had to really fight, had to really earn it at the end. There were a lot of close, late-game situations that we’ve worked on, and it was great to see how well we did. We got some good shots and didn’t turn it over but I think once in the last four or five minutes. I just thought our mental game was much better.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on Thursday’s win at Wake Forest, a game that included 13 fourth-quarter lead changes.