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ND Women’s Basketball: Red Storm next up for Irish

Chris Masoud | Thursday, January 20, 2011

Heading into the heart of the Big East season, No. 11 Notre Dame looks to keep pace among the conference leaders as it hosts St. John’s Sunday. The Irish fell to the Red Storm last season 76-71 on the road, snapping an eight-game win streak.

Despite the additional motivation of returning the favor, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said her team is simply focused on racking up another conference victory.

“They’re a ranked opponent, so it’s another opportunity for us to improve our RPI,” McGraw said. “They’ve got a good RPI, and of course just beating a Big East team every game is really important for us. We’ve got to take care of the home court.”

Notre Dame (16-4, 5-1 Big East) is riding a three-game win streak and is currently ranked fourth in the conference standings. While St. John’s (14-5, 3-3) has yet to separate itself from the pack, the Red Storm feature a number of talented players who have risen to the occasion against the Irish.

Averaging 14.5 points per game, sophomore guard Shenneika Smith shredded the Irish for 23 points and 10 rebounds in the Red Storm’s victory last season.

“Last year, there were three really good freshmen in the league — Skylar [Diggins], Sugar Rodgers from Georgetown and Shenneika,” McGraw said. “She’s a great athlete, she can shoot over you, she’s got great elevation on her jumper, she can shoot threes — she’s really a dangerous player and a very difficult matchup for us.”

In addition to Smith, junior forward Da’Shena Stevens is a dual threat for St. John’s who also had a big game during Notre Dame’s previous loss to the Red Storm. Stevens finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds in the contest, and currently averages 6.8 rebounds per game.

“That’s going to be a good matchup,” McGraw said. “Da’Shena’s a really good player for St. John’s. It’s going to be a battle on the boards because she’s an excellent rebounder too. I think that was how they beat us at St. John’s last year — she really played well, she scored a lot inside, and got a lot of rebounds. That’s a key matchup.”

The Irish will rely on the post presence of junior forward Devereaux Peters and freshman forward Natalie Achonwa to keep Stevens in check. Peters was named to the Big East Honor Roll for the third consecutive week on Monday after averaging 14.5 point and 6.5 rebounds in two games last week.

Achonwa has opened a number of eyes in her first Big East campaign, averaging 8.1 points and 5.8 rebounds in just 18 minutes per game. The 18-year-old Canadian has been a lift off the bench for McGraw, who has started to gradually increase her playing time as she incorporates a larger lineup in conference play.

“I think that freshman Natalie Achonwa has really contributed a lot the entire season, and now she’s getting a little more playing time,” McGraw said. “I think that all the posts are getting a little more playing time and it’s been really good. But rebounding is one of Natalie’s strengths, and that is something that she’s pretty much done all year. And now Devereaux is getting some double-figure rebounding games as well.”

Although the Irish are poised to finish the conference season with one of the top seeds heading into the Big East Championships, a number of teams have emerged as legitimate contenders. While Connecticut remains the favorite to win a Big East title, six teams in the conference, including St. John’s, are ranked in the top-25 of the USA Today Coaches Poll.

Along with the Huskies (17-1, 6-0), Rutgers (11-6, 4-0) and DePaul (17-2, 5-0) remain unbeaten in conference play.

“It’s a great league. Top-to-bottom, it’s just so difficult,” McGraw said. “There’s probably nine teams with a shot at the NCAA tournament. DePaul is probably one of the surprises in the league this year with the way they’ve started out.”

The Blue Demons are off to the best start in program history and will face the Irish in the final conference game of the regular season. Until then, Notre Dame will continue to plow through its conference schedule, beginning Sunday at 2 p.m. against St. John’s at the Purcell Pavilion.