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Friday, July 19, 2019

Notre Dame Enters BIG EAST Conference Season: This Will Be war, Women’s Basketball Style

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Photo Caption: Last November, Notre Dame’s Skyler Diggins (White, No. 4) had a smile on her face as the Irish handed Mercer a 91-28 early-season defeat. This season, many of the scores have been equally lopsided, but the smiles have been replaced by a competitive “mean streak,” fueled by a determination that nothing will stand in the way of Notre Dame’s march to the winner’s dais in Denver at this year’s NCAA Tournament championship on March 20.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Notre Dame Athletics Media Relations/Matt Cashore

By Mark Bradford

Well, at least that’s over.

Notre Dame has completed its preconference schedule as well as could be expected, going 14-1 with the lone loss at top-ranked Baylor. With two BIG EAST wins already under their belts—an early-December meeting with Marquette, which Notre Dame put away, 95-42, and a final tune-up Wednesday against an over-matched Seton Hall team (final score: 74-36, Notre Dame)—the Irish are ready to turn to the heart of their conference schedule.

For Muffet McGraw, the pieces are all in place for a serious run at her second national championship. The Irish still will be vulnerable inside, but only to someone the stature of Brittney Griner and, of course, there is only one of her. The outside guards are quick, the passing efficient, and the on-court leadership undisputed. They have been tested mentally, won a huge comeback (down 36-20 at halftime) game against then No. 7 Duke in the Bahamas, and showed no mercy against the several walkovers that were scheduled in December.

Barring a bad shooting night, the only two teams that can even be in the same gym with them are Connecticut and Tennessee, both of whom visit in January.

Notre Dame’s latest victory, a 128-42 win over Mercer, was scheduled to allow Fredarica Miller to play in front of her hometown fans near Atlanta. Just a week earlier, Longwood was the sacrificial lamb (ND won 92-26)  that allowed former Irish All-American and now Longwood assistant coach Lindsay Schrader to return to Purcell Pavillion where the Lancers were down 27-0 seven minutes into the game. The best that can be said about these two games is there were no ACL tears or turned ankles in the lopsided outcomes.

But a secondary benefit to beating up on these obviously outclassed opponents is that that it demonstrated the new mental/emotional approach that has taken root on the Irish team. McGraw demands her teams show no mercy, even when they score 72 first-half points (against Mercer) or make their opponent turn the ball over eight of their first nine times down the floor (Longwood).

McGraw has learned her lesson well from Geno Auriemma and Pat Summit. My book titled “Nice Girls Finish First” detailed how Ruth Riley, et al., won over the entire town of South Bend by being nice, and in the process took home the NCAA national championship hardware.

The current edition of the Notre Dame roster may all be every bit as nice on a personal basis. But not on the court. This Irish team has a mean streak on the floor that at times makes them look like the big bully in the schoolyard.

It is this mentality, of course, that wins today’s championships. Auriemma is not known for being particularly nice on the court, nor is Summit. They are known for winning championships by stepping on an opponent’s throat when they are down.  Constantly.  And for showing no remorse while doing so.

That is how Notre Dame plays this year. The Irish took the loss to Texas A&M in the national championship game last season personally, not even allowing media to cover their return to campus the next day. That set the tone for this season’s in-your-face defense that took a good Purdue team apart and then buried an undefeated Kentucky team a few days later.  It didn’t hurt that the team’s three best players, Skylar Diggins, Devereaux Peters, and Natalie Novosel, polished their skills still further while winning gold medals in the World Games this summer.

The Irish offense starts with their defense. Forcing turnovers (27 a game) and making steals (over 16 a game) has become as important as hitting a three-pointer to McGraw, and her entire team has bought into that philosophy.

The leader—a natural born one—is Skyler Diggins who can turn on the charm off the court but chews up opposing guards when the clock starts. The whole team, seniors included, defer to Diggins. The junior guard loves the spotlight and owns the moxie to back up her words.  She appears regularly on Twitter, talking basketball all the time. She welcomed all the sportwriters back for Media Day (“Wow, I really missed you guys,” she smiled). She stands for any photo anyone will take, and she rewards her teammates for hustling by giving them the ball even when she should be shooting.

Alongside her stand four of the nation’s best athletes, each of them battle-tested, in a starting five that rarely varies. But the Irish star hold an advantage not many other teams share in five high-quality bench players to spell them, all of whom would be starters on nearly any other team.

Write these dates down: January 7 versus Connecticut (4 p.m. Eastern, CBS) and January 23 versus Tennessee (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2). Get yourself some popcorn, settle in and enjoy women’s basketball at its very best. While nice girls may have finished first in 2001, don’t look for anyone helping anyone off the floor in either of these two games.

This will be war, women’s basketball style.

Originally published Thu, January 05, 2012

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
Rank remains unchanged since last week
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.