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ND Women’s Basketball: Team’s 3-game road stretch starts with Syracuse

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, February 15, 2008

Notre Dame begins a three-game conference road trip – the only one this season for any team in the Big East – on Saturday against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

Syracuse coach Quinten Hillsman has turned his program completely around after last season’s debacle. The Orange finished 15th in the 16-team Big East last season at 3-13 and were 9-20 overall. But this year, they have been one of the biggest surprises of the season at 19-4 and 7-3 in the conference.

“I think he’s up for coach of the year,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw of Hillsman. “He’s done a great job. He has a really good group.”

One reason for Syracuse’s success this season is its ability to take care of its home court. The Orange have fallen only once in the Carrier Dome – a 65-59 loss to then-No. 1 Connecticut.

The Carrier Dome presents a unique problem for the Irish. So far this season, the Irish have played in front of an average of 5,367 fans per game, including three games of over 10,000 people. But at Syracuse, where the maximum capacity for basketball is 33,000, the Orange only average 1,463 fans in their 11 home contests.

“They’re just getting going, so it’s a good start for them,” McGraw said.

McGraw said she wants to make sure her team gets plenty of time in its shootaround to prepare for playing in that kind of environment.

“It’s just a vast, empty backdrop,” McGraw said. “And it’s just apparently, not being a shooter myself, hard to shoot at places like that.”

Syracuse is also able to get help offensively from a wide variety of players this season, including four who average double-digit scoring. Guard Chandrea Jones, who transferred from Odessa College (a junior college) after last season, leads the team with 15.9 points per game, followed by guards Fantasia Goodwin and Nicole Michael at 13.0 each and guard Erica Morrow at 12.4.

McGraw said that what makes the Orange scoring threats even more dangerous is that their offense is so versatile.

“They’re just all really good at driving the ball and shooting the ball,” she said. “It’s a nightmare matchup for us.”

McGraw said Syracuse presents her team with a lot of tough matchups especially because senior guard Tulyah Gaines – who has been the team’s best defender all season – can only guard one player at a time.

“Obviously there’s a lot of mismatches. We’re going to work today [Thursday] on containing the ball, just see if we can guard them,” McGraw said.

Notre Dame will also look to continue improving its rebounding Saturday. The Orange have three players (Goodwin at 9.5, Michael at 7.9 and Jones at 7.8) who all average more rebounds per game than anyone on Notre Dame’s roster. Guard Lindsay Schrader leads the team with 5.8 boards per contest.

“They’re more athletic, they’re better,” McGraw said. “Again we’re working on boxing out and containing the ball… . We’ve got to get in and get a body on them, because we aren’t going to be out-jumping people.”

Gaines has played exceptionally well on both ends of the court of late, scoring in double figures four times in a row – the longest streak of her four years at Notre Dame.

“She’s playing like a senior,” McGraw said. “She’s just trying to do everything she can to put us in a good position.”

Wednesday’s 99-76 win over Marquette was a good sign for the Irish that they could win without freshman forward Devereaux Peters, who tore her left ACL Sunday against Pittsburgh.

“I really feel like the injury to Devereaux has given the motivation or inspiration to do more,” McGraw said. “And it’s a great feeling when your team feels that way because everyone plays a little bit harder defensively, everyone is thinking ‘How can I contribute to the team?'”

McGraw said she thinks Gaines and sophomore guard Melissa Lechlitner have both had a great stretch of games over the last week.

Peters sat on the Irish bench during the game and kept the shot chart.

The Marquette win also showcased Notre Dame’s two best offensive facets, McGraw said: free throws and layups.

Notre Dame hit 26-of-28 from the line against the Golden Eagles and had 54 points in the paint. Over its last five games, Notre Dame has shot 117-of-137 at the charity stripe for an 85.4 percentage.

The Irish were also able to rack up 99 points with only one made 3-point shot.

“That’s amazing to me that we can score 99 points with only one 3,” McGraw said. “I think it’s because we’re driving to the lane better. We had quite a few three-point plays last night. I thought that was good to see that we’re finishing with contact and we’re running well.”

The game will start Saturday night at