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ND Women’s Basketball: No. 1 Connecticut comes to town

Bill Brink | Friday, January 25, 2008

Notre Dame hasn’t fared well against teams ranked in the top five this season. The Irish have lost to Maryland and Tennessee, both ranked No. 3 at the time of the games.

And after coaches and players alike expressed the need to improve the defense after an 81-80 loss to DePaul Tuesday, a third loss in six games, the prospect of facing the No. 1 team in the nation catches Notre Dame at a bad time.

The Irish have their work cut out for them against Connecticut, which visits the Joyce Center at 7 p.m. Sunday. The Huskies are undefeated (18-0, 5-0 Big East) and most recently beat No. 3 North Carolina at home on Monday. Regardless of the challenge the Irish face, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said the chance to play the best team in the nation at home on national television – ESPN2 will televise the game – will indicate how her team compares with the rest of the Big East.

“[It’s] another opportunity for us to come out and see just how far we have to go this season to get to a spot in the Big East where we can really compete with everybody in the Big East,” McGraw said during a conference call with reporters. “And we haven’t been able to do that just yet, so that’s something we’re working on.”

The Irish (15-4, 3-2 Big East) have sometimes hidden behind their offense, McGraw said. They average 79.4 points per game and shoot 47.1 percent from the field.

“We have a little bit of an attitude that our scoring’s going well, so let’s just keep scoring and get the ball back and outscore them,” McGraw said. “And we really can’t do that against good teams, and that’s really been hurting us.”

Notre Dame allowed 87 points to Tennessee, 74 to Louisville, 86 to Georgetown and 81 to DePaul. McGraw said that playing zone defense might counteract the team’s defensive woes, but that the team needs to focus no matter what defense it plays.

“We’ve been playing a lot of man to man, and we just haven’t been good guarding the 3-point line whether in man or zone,” McGraw said.

McGraw said the lineup didn’t matter. She said she could tinker with it to tailor the game plan against specific defensive matchups, but she doesn’t anticipate lineup changes if the team plays more zone defense.

“We’re playing the same eight or nine people, not a big deal to me who starts,” she said.

While the Irish need to improve their perimeter defense, that will be the least of their worries against Connecticut. The Huskies average 83.4 points per game and give up only 46.1. They shoot 49.6 percent from the floor and make an average of 6.4 3-pointers per game. They out-rebound opponents by 16.9 per game.

Huskies guard Renee Montgomery dropped 53 points in her last two games, 27 against Cincinnati on Jan. 19 and 26 against the Tar Heels, despite only averaging 11.9 points per game. Freshman forward Maya Moore leads Connecticut with 15.8 points per game, and center Tina Charles averages a double-double (13.8 points, 10.4 boards). Guard Mel Thomas has hit 39.3 percent of her 3-point attempts.

Despite her displeasure with the team’s recent performance, McGraw said she was happy with the play of sophomore center Erica Williamson and freshman guard Ashley Barlow of late. Barlow led the team in scoring in the past three games and Williamson scored a career-high 16 points against DePaul Tuesday. She was also happy with sophomore guard Melissa Lechlitner.

When asked about the notion that some conference coaches view Connecticut as a throw-away game, McGraw dismissed the idea and said she welcomed the chance to face the Huskies.

“I think there might be some teams in the league that feel they can’t compete against Connecticut right now, but I think it s a challenge for us and opportunity for us to play the No. 1 team in the conference … and certainly for us on national TV, it makes it an even bigger opportunity,” she said. “It’s great to have them in the league because they set the standard for the conference. I think most of us would love to be where they are.”