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ND Women’s Basketball: Familiar setting for Irish in first round against Minnesota

Bill Brink | Friday, March 20, 2009

Struggles on defense have been a malaise that afflicted Notre Dame all season. But Irish coach Muffet McGraw may have a solution.

“Something new, we’re going to actually try to guard them this time,” she said glibly. “We’ve been working on that for a couple days.”

She jests, but according to her players, who are preparing for No. 7-seed Notre Dame’s matchup against No. 10-seed Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Joyce Center Sunday, she’s not joking about defensive improvements.

“Every little thing, if we don’t box out, if we don’t do the approach right, or contain the ball, then we have to run for it,” freshman guard Natalie Novosel said.

The Irish (22-8) and the Gophers (19-11) have met once before in the NCAA Tournament, in 1994. As a seven seed. The Gophers were the No. 10 seed. At the Joyce Center. In the first round. Eerie. But Minnesota won, 81-76.

The Gophers lost four of their last five games, but that doesn’t alleviate McGraw’s worries. Minnesota’s dual-threat offense will present a challenge to Notre Dame’s defense, McGraw said.

“You play zone, maybe they get some threes,” McGraw said. “You play man-to-man and they get isolation on the block.”

Senior guard Emily Fox leads the Gophers in scoring, averaging 12.8 points per game. Junior forward Ashley Ellis-Milan averages 11.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.

“They have a great inside-outside game,” McGraw said. “They have a post player who’s very hard to guard and they’ve got three or four guards that can shoot the 3 and handle the ball.”

Junior guard Katie Ohm leads the team in 3-point percentage, hitting 39.3 percent of her 3s. Irish sophomore forward Becca Bruszewski said getting down the court in a hurry will help the 3-point defense.

“Getting back in transition [is important] because they can stop and pop from the 3-point line,” she said.

That transition defense will be needed to clog passing lanes and stop Fox and junior guard Brittany McCoy, both of whom have more than 100 assists.

“You really got to find them in transition. They get a lot looking for each other,” McGraw said. “We haven’t completed our game plan yet, but we hope to put some pressure defensively on them so we can hopefully take away some of the passing lanes.”

The Irish are playing at home, an unnatural phenomenon when playing in a high-stakes tournament game. But the players aren’t worried – in fact, they like it.

“The normality of it is going to be kind of nice,” Novosel said.

Bruszewski said playing at home wouldn’t create a laid-back atmosphere. Instead, it intensifies the need to win.

“That’s why you go out there and want to win so bad, because you don’t want to lose at home,” she said.

Championing that attitude, McGraw said, is senior guard Lindsay Schrader, who’s ramped up her intensity after the conference tournament.

“She came in and you watched her for about 10 min of our first practice and you knew that she was ready for the NCAA tournament,” McGraw said. “She’s trying to elevate the underclassmen.”

The players said McGraw told them after practice Tuesday that they practiced like a No. 7 seed. On Wednesday, she upped her analysis of their performance to a No. 3 or No. 4 seed.

“Everyone’s here for a common goal, and it’s an exciting atmosphere,” Novosel said.

Bruszewski concisely related what Notre Dame needs to do to win.

“Defend the 3-point line, execute on offense and crash the boards, because I think we can win the battle of the boards,” she said.