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ND Women’s Basketball: McGraw and team head to Virgin Islands

Alex Barker | Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No. 6 Notre Dame will get a break from the chilly Midwest as it travels to play in the Paradise Jam tournament hosted by the University of the U.S. Virgin Islands over the Thanksgiving holidays.

“It’s great for the girls to have such a nice destination to go to,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “It’s just a great tournament and the teams we’re playing will offer some strong competition.”

With the number of distractions that will greet the Irish in the Caribbean, McGraw said she just hopes her team will be able to keep its focus.

“I’m a little worried about the focus of the team,” she said. “The veterans should be okay, but it’s going to be a bit of a challenge. We’re going to keep our usual road trip routine, but when you look outside its going to look a little different.”

While the weather and scenery are sure to keep Irish eyes smiling, the tournament competition will be far from accommodating.

Notre Dame (3-0) will meet No. 23 San Diego State (3-0) Thursday before squaring off with South Carolina (2-1) and No. 20 Oklahoma (2-1) over the weekend.

“This will be like training for the Big East tournament,” McGraw said. “How do you play three days in a row and how do you adjust your game?”

The Aztecs are off to a strong start this season behind the outstanding play of forward Paris Johnson, who is averaging 14.3 points, seven rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game. Jene Morris leads the Aztec backcourt averaging 13 points and four steals per game.

“It going to be interesting having speed on speed,” McGraw said. “We have a quick team but they have some great post players too and I think that is where our challenge is going to be. They will be a very difficult match-up for us because they can run and pressure defensively.”

The Irish will counter with an impressive lineup of guards led by senior Ashley Barlow and freshman Skylar Diggins. In three games, Barlow has tallied 13.7 points per contest while Diggins, last week’s Big East Freshman of the Week, has added 13.3 points per game despite not yet having cracked the Irish’s starting five.

“Barlow is kind of the unsung hero of our team … She doesn’t get a lot of attention,” McGraw said. “I think Skylar has done great so far, scoring and defending. I’m most happy with her defense, the way she gets up on the ball and gives us a lot of intensity.”

Friday, the Irish will face the Gamecocks, who boast one of the most talented players in the country, before matching up in Saturday’s finale with the Sooners.

Gamecocks center Kelsey Bone is averaging 21.3 points and 11 rebounds per game and was the second highest-rated freshman recruit coming into this season behind only Diggins.

The Irish will be short on bodies to throw at Bone as sophomore forward Kellie Watson will not make the trip due to a knee injury.

Senior center Erica Williamson looks to be Notre Dame’s best option inside on the defensive end, however her minutes have been limited so far this season as she too continues to recover from an injury.

Overall, McGraw has been pleased with the results her team has achieved thus far and is intrigued by the unique challenge that this weekend’s tournament will present.

“[The team has some momentum] coming off the win at Michigan State and I thought we played well defensively at home against Iona,” McGraw said. “But we aren’t going to get to practice [in the Virgin Islands] which could be a problem. We are going to see how the team reacts to that.”