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ND Women’s Basketball: ND will face its Demons in Big East tourney

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, March 2, 2007

With a week left in the regular season, the Irish controlled their own destiny.

They were securely set in second place in the conference, with a two-game lead and two games to play. With contests against No. 21 Rutgers Feb. 24 and two days later at DePaul – a team the Irish had already beaten – it seemed like they would be a lock for one of four first-round byes in the Big East tournament.

Then things went very wrong, very fast.

Notre Dame was dominated in the next two games – both losses – and slipped to seventh in the conference, adding an extra game in their quest for a Big East title.

So what happened?

The Irish couldn’t defend. At least, they had a hard time of it. In the two losses, Notre Dame suffered back-to-back double-digit losses for the first time this season. More importantly, the Irish gave up an inordinate amount of 3-pointers during the season-ending skid.

“I think we lost the last two games because of our inability to guard the 3-point line,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “And the percentage that they’re shooting is good because they’re so open.”

In their 76-60 loss to Rutgers, the Irish 3-point defense was completely ineffective, with the Scarlet Knights sinking more than half their attempts from long distance. The Irish were even worse in the second half against the Rutgers, which made 4-of-5 threes.

The Irish were just as bad against DePaul, which made half of its threes against Notre Dame’s porous 3-point defense.

One of the most important factors in DePaul’s performance Wednesday was the play of forward Caprice Smith, who scored 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting to go along with eight rebounds.

Smith presents a unique problem for the Irish because she can play strong in the post and out on the perimeter. In DePaul’s win over the Irish, Smith was able to find her way outside to make 2-of-5 three-pointers, troubling Notre Dame’s post players.

“She scored a lot of different ways when we played [at DePaul],” McGraw said. “We have to get our posts comfortable on the perimeter and that’s our biggest problem right now.”

So tomorrow when the Irish begin their tournament, they will face none other than DePaul. With a season split already, a neutral court will decide the series between the two teams.

The Irish have been able to be successful in spite of their defense throughout the season because of the team’s potent offense. The Irish averaged 71 points per game in the regular season and 71.4 against conference foes. The main reason Notre Dame has remained successful throughout the season has been the play of the team’s leading scorer – Charel Allen. Allen has been crucial to the team’s success this season, registering 17 points and 6.4 rebounds per game to keep the team competitive throughout Big East play.

But Notre Dame’s late season struggles proved that when Charel struggles, the Irish follow.

Against the Blue Demons, Allen became desperate from the floor, shooting only 33 percent with a paltry 10 points. She also struggled during Notre Dame’s only other multi-game losing streak, a three-game span from Jan. 23 to Jan. 31. The junior shot a combined 15-of-55 with just 14 points per game during the skein.

In order to win this weekend, the Irish must improve their defense.

All season McGraw has recognized the problem the 3-point defense faces, and has spent this week at practice trying to correct it.

“We’re kind of hoping to give up more twos than threes,” McGraw said. “I would rather have more twos than threes. [DePaul] scored eleven threes and if they were all twos it’s a whole different game.”

But even if the Irish do manage to step their defense and shut down the Blue Demons, they’ll still have to face 2-seed Rutgers Sunday.

Still, no time will be better than Saturday for the Irish to confront their demons.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Jay Fitzpatrick at jfitzpa5@nd.edu