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ND Women’s Basketball: Irish return home to face South Florida after three-game series

Deirdre Krasula | Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Muffet McGraw’s nerves might be thanking the Irish, but her appetite isn’t.

The unsteady Irish in 2007 gave McGraw enough stress to fill up on chocolate and steak without gaining weight. This year, sitting at 21-6 going into the Big East tournament, McGraw must eat salad to keep her figure.

No. 14 Notre Dame returns home today to take on South Florida in the first of three games before the start of the Big East tournament. The Irish look to finish their season 3-0 on their final run, securing a bye in the first round of the tournament.

“It’s really important for us to finish strong,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “Right now we’ve got a bye and we’re in control of our destiny, we have to win out to keep that bye.

“Mathematically we might not have to, but that’s what we want to do. Two wins will do it but that’s not gonna be good enough for us.”

The Irish enter tonight’s match after going 2-1 on a three-game road trip. Notre Dame defeated Syracuse and DePaul 79-67 and 66-64, respectively, and fell to No. 5 Rutgers 57-51.

But McGraw isn’t too worried about the loss to the Scarlet Knights.

“I’m so proud of this team and of what we’ve accomplished because last year we had three road games in a row – against ranked teams – and went 0-3,” McGraw said. “And we had the same situation this year, and we go 2-1, and we played really well at Rutgers.”

The Irish take on the Bulls with a much smaller bench than they had at the start of the season. Freshman Devereaux Peters is out for the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and freshman Becca Bruszewski underwent surgery for a broken hand. McGraw said Bruszewski’s surgery went well but said she is likely to sit out the rest of the week.

Multiple injuries haven’t slowed Notre Dame’s success. McGraw noted that the Irish are a well-balanced team this year – especially compared to last year. Toward the end of 2007, the Irish often relied on then-junior Charel Allen to come up big, but this year, everyone is stepping up.

“I feel like we’re light years ahead of where we were last year,” McGraw said. “We’re playing with a lot of confidence, we’re getting great production from a lot of people. It’s amazing how everybody’s doing something to help us win, we are not in any way a one man team.”

Sophomore Erica Williamson has taken over in the face of injuries. The 6-foot-4 center is averaging .477 from the field with 4.6 rebounds per game. Williamson led the Irish off the boards against DePaul with eight.

“I’m really happy with the way she’s become a presence in the game at both ends of the floor,” McGraw said. “Defensively, you don’t know if she’s gonna block the shot or take the charge which makes it a lot harder for the offense…. She’s playing the best basketball of her career.”

Even with players like Williamson leading the Irish at both ends, McGraw isn’t underestimating South Florida. Senior guard Shantia Grace is a threat from both inside and outside the arc, averaging .373 from the field and .408 for 3-pointers.

“I thought she was a really good player last year but she was kind of overshadowed with [Jessica] Dickson…. Now she’s really come into her own, she’s playing really well,” McGraw said.

But McGraw said she feels her defense is strong enough to handle Grace. After struggling early on with their defense, the Irish have improved dramatically over the last month. They are likely to look to even further improve their defense.

“We are really looking for these last three games to kind of get better at some things,” McGraw said. “We’re happy with the defense and now we can take up with the offense a little bit more.”

Notre Dame takes on South Florida tonight at 7 in the Joyce Center