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ND Women’s Basketball: Scaling the mountain

Joseph Monardo | Thursday, February 9, 2012

Their next time out, the Irish can take another step toward securing the longest winning streak in school history, while also contributing to the fight against cancer. No. 2 Notre Dame will put its 21-game winning streak on the line against surging Big East foe West Virginia for the annual Pink Zone game Sunday.

The Irish (24-1, 11-0 Big East) defeated Syracuse 74-55 on Wednesday despite shooting just 12.5 percent from the three-point range in a subpar performance. As her team prepares to return to action on its home court, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she hopes her team can improve on its most recent outing.

“We will shoot the ball better because we are playing at home and I think we will play at a faster pace,” McGraw said. “That was one of the things that we didn’t do against Syracuse, we played a little bit slower to match their tempo. So we will work on those things.”

One bright spot for Notre Dame in the victory over Syracuse (15-10, 4-7) was the ability to outrebound the Orange, who entered the game averaging 47.7 rebounds per game, by 10. In their last 19 games, the Irish have a rebounding margin of plus 14.6 per game.

“I was really pleased with our rebounding … so that was a really big positive that we are going to need to carry into this game, because West Virginia is another great rebounding team,” McGraw said.

Sophomore guard Taylor Palmer leads West Virginia (17-6, 7-3) with 12.6 points per game, but the Mountaineers’ strong post presence is most threatening to the Irish, McGraw said. West Virginia junior center Aysa Bussie enters the game averaging 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Redshirt junior center Ayana Dunning adds 7.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Bussie and Dunning stand at 6’3″ and 6’4″, respectively, and combine to form an intimidating frontcourt.

“They’ve got great post play and a lethal combination,” McGraw said. “They will be very difficult for us to match up with, so that is definitely going to be a big concern of ours.”

The Irish will rely on an inside duo of their own, composed of graduate student forward Devereaux Peters and sophomore forward Natalie Achonwa, to match up with their conference opponent in the post.

“Devereaux Peters has been playing extremely well, Natalie Achonwa has been really coming on lately and is rebounding well, [sophomore guard] Kayla McBride is rebounding well, so I think we’ll being looking to our post to really step up in this game,” McGraw said.

Despite its undefeated record in conference play, Notre Dame expects the Mountaineers to enter the game hungry as they look to improve on their fifth-place ranking in the Big East. West Virginia has won five of their last six games, including an upset of No. 12 Louisville on Feb. 4.

“They are on a roll,” McGraw said of the Mountaineers. “They’ve won three in a row, [and] they are in good position in the conference. They are coming down the stretch here looking at a pretty high seed in the tournament and an NCAA bid, so they have a lot to play for right now.”

Both teams will have plenty to play for on Sunday, with the Play 4 Kay and Pink Zone events both taking place in South Bend this weekend.

“We are trying to raise money for Saint Joseph’s County and keep the money here for … all the women in this area,” McGraw said. “So what can we do to help them, and to help fund mammograms and cancer research and trying to make it touch the lives of people right here. It is a national occasion. Kay Yow was sort of the Jim Valvano for women’s basketball, and Play 4 Kay is a big part of ESPN and what they are doing.

“We will be wearing pink, we are having an auction and we are doing a lot of things to raise money … so we are definitely doing a lot to help the cause.”

After raising roughly $120,000 to support cancer research through the event last year, the Irish aim to raise $130,000 this time around.

Notre Dame will host West Virginia on Sunday, with the tip-off scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at the Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu