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ND Women’s Basketball Analysis: Defense will determine course of season

Jay Fitzpatrick | Thursday, January 22, 2009

If Notre Dame wants to stay near the top of the Big East, it will need to find its defensive rhythm.

The Irish have only two losses so far this season, but in their last two games, they have played lackluster at times under their own basket. The team’s first loss in the Big East came at Marquette on Jan. 13, in a game in which Irish coach Muffet McGraw said her team played without a solid effort.

“I think we lost our commitment to the defensive end of the floor. We did not play our normal game defensively. They got a lot of easy shots and that was disappointing,” McGraw said in an interview Jan. 14.

But the Irish continued to struggle with finding their game defensively against St. John’s last Saturday, playing an accordion-style game where they could not put the Red Storm away, despite an 11-point second half lead.

After that game, the remarks centered on the ability of the team to “fight” to stay alive in that game.

“We have the fight and the drive and we just kept pushing today,” guard Ashley Barlow said in the post-game news conference Saturday.

“We had to keep fighting, and if we wouldn’t have fought, it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty,” freshman forward Erica Solomon said.

It is easy to say that the Irish have that fighting spirit – and even easier after a gutsy victory like the one Saturday – but the real question is “Why wasn’t it there earlier in the game?” The younger players need to understand quickly that you can’t start fighting once the game is close and late, but from the first whistle to the last. Letting teams back into games when they don’t deserve to be is the best way to start losing.

The Irish are lucky that their opponent Saturday was only St. John’s. That is not to say the Red Storm are a bad team, but in this year’s Big East, they are a team the Irish could have – and should have – beaten by more than three points.

With trips to Pittsburgh – who knocked Notre Dame out of the Big East tournament a season ago – and top-ranked Connecticut remaining in the Big East schedule, the team will have to find a way to deal with a lead much better than it did against St. John’s. Allowing a double-digit, second-half comeback against a stronger team in the conference will not be so easily salvageable in the coming weeks.

For point guard Melissa Lechlitner, it is a matter of when – not if – the team will find its defensive energy and intensity.

“[The freshmen] all have [a killer instinct], it’s just a matter of it coming at the right time and each person having the confidence to just know it’s game time and we have to get that win no matter what,” she said.

But on a team as young and injured as the Irish are (having only one senior and lost two players to ACL injuries), they will need to find that quickly for the team to survive the upcoming conference schedule. Waiting around for the younger players to realize when they need to play hard will lead to more nailbiters – and not all of them can fall Notre Dame’s way.

***For more on Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s athletics, check out The Observer’s sports blog, The Casual Observer, at observersportsblog.wordpress.com.