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ND WOMEN”S BASKETBALL – COMMENTARY: Fundamentals spark win streak

Bill Brink | Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sometimes the formula for winning lies in the little things.Since Feb. 4, Notre Dame has won five straight Big East games by an average score of 12.2 points per game. Charel Allen has scored 25 or more points in four of those five contests. The Irish defense is better than ever. It even out-rebounded Louisville, the best rebounding team in the Big East. But no single factor is responsible. Regardless of what results may show, field goals, foul shots and turnovers have been Notre Dame’s strong points this season. But often they’ve had one or two and lacked the other. In a loss to USC Nov. 24, the team forced 27 turnovers but was cold from the free-throw line, sinking just 41.2 percent of its foul shots. On Dec. 30, the Irish shot well but made only 66.7 percent of their free throws and forced just 15 turnovers. Against Connecticut Jan. 27, the defense created plenty of turnovers but the team shot just 24.2 percent for the game.Sometimes all the factors are present, but still don’t add up to a victory. Against Indiana Dec. 3, Notre Dame shot 41.7 percent from the field, 83.3 percent from the free-throw line and forced 21 turnovers, but still lost 54-51. But in the past five games, the Irish have shined. They’ve averaged 19.8 turnovers per game, shot 45.3 percent from the field and 73.4 percent from the free-throw line.”We have shot the ball well at different times,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said in her bi-monthly conference call. “Melissa Lechlitner, I think one of the best shooters on our team, has really in the last two games shot the ball very well. Breona Gray is shooting the ball very well right now, and Charel Allen has shot well the last eight games.”Field goals Allen is averaging 24.8 points per game on 52 percent shooting during the win streak, Gray is averaging 9.2 points per game shooting 41 percent and Lechlitner is averaging 8.6 points per game on 43 percent shooting. The Irish have steadily improved their shooting throughout the streak. They began sinking 40.4 percent against West Virginia Feb. 4. That number climbed gradually to 49.1 percent in their win over Providence Feb. 17. “I think overall, we’re really putting the ball in the basket a little bit more,” McGraw said. “I don’t think our shot selection is any different, I just think we’re really confident right now.”

Foul shots The free throw line has also been an important source of points for Notre Dame. The team set the tone by sinking 33-of-39 free throws against West Virginia, a scorching 84.6 percent. What’s amazing about this particular aspect is the lack of attention paid to it by McGraw.”Its funny, we haven’t worked on it at all,” she said. “We’re pretty good free-throw shooters in general.”Last summer, center Melissa D’Amico and forward Crystal Erwin were told to improve their free-throw shooting, as both were under 60 percent. The work paid off – D’Amico now shoots 81.1 percent from the line.”They both obviously worked on it very well, Mel in particular,” McGraw said. “She’s shot the ball very well from the free throw line. And I think our freshmen were good free throw shooters in high school and they continue to do that.”McGraw went on to call this year’s team the best free-throw shooting team she’s ever coached.

Turnovers Notre Dame has caused problems on defense all season, but the success wasn’t always coupled with the offensive production it now enjoys. Villanova’s offense was immeasurably hampered due to the turnovers the Irish caused, and the 24-turnover performance played a large role in upsetting then-No. 17 Louisville Feb. 7. Still, McGraw is not entirely pleased.”I was a little disappointed against Providence,” she said. “They have very good guards, and they handled our pressure very well. That’s the first game in a while that a team hasn’t turned the ball over 20 times, so we are really going to focus on that a little bit more, and try to develop maybe a little something different for the stretch run and the Big East tournament.”With three games left in the regular season, Notre Dame has a tentative hold on the final first-round bye in the Big East tournament. Nothing is guaranteed, but if the Irish continue to combine the successful elements of their game, it could mean good things for the postseason.