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ND Women’s Basketball: Top 20 test

Chris Masoud | Friday, January 22, 2010

Unless you’re Connecticut, it’s not every day that your team gets to play the role of season spoiler week in and week out. But when No. 16 West Virginia comes to Purcell Pavilion Sunday to defend its undefeated conference record, the Irish will have the opportunity to bust the Mountaineers’ 16-game win streak before the Huskies do.

No. 4 Notre Dame (16-1, 3-1 Big East) is coming off one of its most important tests of the season, a 78-60 victory over Louisville that put the Irish back in the win column.

Unfortunately, Louisville is nowhere near the level of play the Mountaineers will be bringing to the table, a fact not lost on Irish coach Muffet McGraw.

“It’s going to be a tall order for us,” McGraw said. “I think they have a great point guard in Sarah Miles, who’s a really good 3-point shooter and runs her tail off, and then they have some inside players. Korinne Campbell, who’s really made an impact on the team, she’s going to be a factor for them.”

Indeed, the pair of juniors has paced West Virginia to a second-place rank in the Big East standings and the program’s hottest start since the 1991-92 season. Miles leads the Big East with 6.8 assists and 3.1 steals per game, while turning the ball over the least.

Campbell is a dual threat, working her way to top 10 in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage and rebounding.

McGraw is confident her players will be ready for the challenge, so long as they stick to the Irish brand of basketball that has been so successful all season.

“I think we’ve got to play our game,” McGraw said. “We’re shooting the ball pretty well, we’ve got a lot of good options on offense, but it comes down to defense and how much pressure we can put on the ball. That’s when we’re most successful, when we get people to turn the ball over.”

The proof is in the numbers. The Irish are 10-0 when they force 20 or more turnovers out of the opposition.

Recently though, the Irish defense has looked sluggish in the first half, leading to deficits of 12 and 20 to Louisville and Connecticut, respectively. The Irish were able to overcome their first-half woes against the Cardinals, and McGraw said she thinks her team is built to play the full 40 minutes.

“It’s important to set the tone early, but I think our strength is in our depth,” McGraw said. “We can really wear people down, so in the second half we tend to play much better because we’re fresher, and we have great balance with different people coming in. I think it helps us relax, and we’ve been a second-half team mostly because of our bench.”

The triple threat of guards seniors Lindsay Schrader and Ashley Barlow, and freshman Skylar Diggins will be key to the Irish’s success, as they look to run the ball and score early and often against a Mountaineers team giving up the second-fewest points in the conference. Junior Devereaux Peters, who was sidelined with a torn ACL last season, will play a significant factor against the Mountaineer post threats.

“She’s a really, really great rebounder, defender and shot-blocker,” McGraw said. “I think she’s been able to find her way back, not worrying about scoring and where she’s getting the points. It’s a little bit easier when there’s no pressure on her to score a lot of points because we need her in the game to help us rebound and be a presence on defense.”

All gate receipts as well as the net concession revenue from the game will be donated to aid recovery efforts in Haiti. During both the men’s and women’s games over the weekend, student athletes will pass buckets throughout the crowd for added donations.

All donations will be used in aid toward the Notre Dame Haiti Program, the Congregation of Holy Cross and Catholic Relief Services.

Tip-off is at 1 p.m. Sunday at Purcell Pavilion, with coverage on ESPNU.