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ND Women’s Basketball: Notre Dame, Rutgers put streaks on the line

Joe Meixell | Friday, February 23, 2007

Two teams riding winning streaks will collide Saturday in the Joyce Center as Notre Dame faces No. 21/22 Rutgers at noon.

The Irish (19-8, 10-4 Big East) have won their last five games, including a 73-48 drubbing of Georgetown Wednesday night. The Scarlet Knights (18-7, 11-3 Big East) have been just as impressive of late, winning four in a row and nine of their last 10, falling only to No. 4 Connecticut 60-50 Feb. 6.

The Irish have been strong at home this season, beating three ranked teams already – No. 18 Bowling Green Nov. 13, No. 15 Purdue Dec. 6 and No. 23 Louisville Feb. 7. Despite the success Notre Dame has had in the Joyce Center, coach Muffet McGraw understands the challenge Rutgers poses.

“It’s an important game for us because it’s a chance for us to beat a ranked team,” she said. “And the crowd’s really helped us at home, but it’s going to be a really challenging game for us.”

The Scarlet Knights come to Notre Dame with three players scoring in double figures – guard Epiphanny Prince (13.8 points per game), center Kia Vaughn (13.3) and forward/guard Essence Carson (12.8). Vaughn has been a presence inside for Rutgers all season, adding 9.8 boards per game along with her double-digit points.

“Kia Vaughn, one of the most improved players in the league inside, is a tough matchup for our posts,” McGraw said. “She’s strong and can rebound and score.”

Prince and Carson lead a potent three-point attack for the Scarlet Knights, averaging .410 and .324 from beyond the arc, respectively.

“Their guards are fast – they’re good three-point shooters, which is probably their biggest improvement because we’ve always kind of packed in a zone against them,” McGraw said.

The game has extra emotion for the Irish as they finish out their home schedule. This game will be the final time that seniors Breona Gray and Crystal Erwin have the opportunity to play in front of their home crowd.

Gray has once again been Notre Dame’s top defensive player, pestering opponents all season long. But unlike previous seasons, the senior guard has become increasingly more involved in the Irish’s offensive scheme.

“I think she has really achieved her potential and at times overachieved what we hoped that she would be for us,” McGraw said.

Although Erwin has not received as much praise as Gray this year, McGraw said the forward has played unselfishly all season long.

“She doesn’t care about individual accolades – she just wants to do whatever she can to help the team,” McGraw said.

In order to prepare for Saturday’s game, McGraw focused her attention on improving the team’s offense. She said the most important things to work on are the team’s press offense and man-to-man offense because of Rutgers’ style of play.

“It’s playing against a team that will be similar to what Tennessee did against us, and we haven’t played against teams like that in a while, so we really need to work on playing against a pressure defense,” she said.

With two games remaining in the season, the Irish can clinch a first-round bye in the Big East tournament if they win out. Notre Dame could also clinch with a win and losses from West Virginia and Louisville.

“It’s going to be really difficult to accomplish that with the two teams we have left, we might need some help from some other people,” McGraw said. “But it’s great to be in control of your own destiny.”