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ND Women’s Basketball: Team must toughen up in coming games

Deirdre Krasula | Thursday, February 12, 2009

Louisville came into the Joyce Center looking to knock the Irish around, and well, can you blame them? Notre Dame hasn’t exactly made a name for itself as one of the more physical teams in the Big East.

Just take a look at the Irish roster and you’ll see that junior center Erica Williamson is the tallest they’ve got, measuring at 6-foot-4. And even just watching Notre Dame next to another team during the national anthem, you’d have to be blind to not notice the wingspan and sheer athleticism advantages most Big East teams seem to hold over the Irish.

And that’s been a problem all season. Falling to both Pittsburgh and Rutgers within the past month, it looked like Notre Dame might not be able to play with the big kids on the playground.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw said: “Coming out of the Pitt and Rutgers games we were worried.”

And rightfully so. Even in a 62-59 win over DePaul Sunday afternoon, Notre Dame looked like it might not have the size to fight far into the postseason.

And when Louisville showed up last night, I’m sure some of those questions began racing through Irish fans’ heads again. Just glancing at All-American forward Angel McCoughtry – with biceps any college age male would be jealous of – likely sent shivers down many spines.

But this time the Irish stood a little taller and a little bigger, just not quite enough. And Louisville’s advantage in size showed itself on the boards. Louisville had the Irish beat 26-21 in defensive rebounds. Perhaps the most surprising side of the Irish defense came from guard Melissa Lechlitner who, standing at only 5-foot-7, grabbed the most defensive boards for the Irish with five. And that’s certainly a sign that the Irish have learned from their past.

“They’re incredibly athletic, we’ve seen a lot of that in the Big East – Rutgers, Pitt – and I thought we played better than we did against both those teams. So I think we’re improving,” McGraw said.

But the Irish have a long way to go before they’re at the athletic level of McCoughtry and Louisville. And it’s not even about height. I’d put my money any day on a boxing match featuring Deseree Byrd, who’s only 5-foot-9, Lechlitner and Ashley Barlow.

Teams as athletic as Louisville utilize the press and don’t let up. It doesn’t help that McCoughtry is one of the best pass readers in the country and grabbed eight steals.

“McCoughtry with the steals, she kind of wreaked havoc on us,” McGraw said.

But what the Irish lack in height seems to be becoming less and less of an issue. That was clear last night. Even when Louisville went on a 13-point run, Notre Dame fought back. Freshman Natalie Novosel had two offensive rebounds that she converted into baskets in a crucial three minutes midway through the second half. Barlow and Erica Solomon had five offensive boards apiece. The Irish can get tough, but so can their opponents.

“We’ve got to be tougher than the teams we play,” Cardinals coach Jeff Walz said.

And they were tougher than the Irish. Even if it was by a small margin, it was enough for a win. That’s not to say the physical side of the Irish game isn’t there, it could just use a little fine-tuning. A protein-carb shake here and there might not hurt either.

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

Contact Deirdre Krasula at dkrasula@nd.edu