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ND Women’s Basketball: Notre Dame set to take on Cal

Chris Masoud | Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Kayla McBride watched Notre Dame’s run to the NCAA tournament championship game from the bench in 2011. After just one tournament game in 2012, McBride is leading the charge.

The sophomore guard paced the Irish with a team-high 15 points, as Notre Dame blew past Liberty 74-43 in the opening round of the tournament Sunday afternoon.

“I think she was so anxious to play in her first [NCAA] tournament game. I actually forgot that this was her first NCAA tournament,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “She really came out well. I thought she might be nervous, but she was fine from the start … She’s such an X-factor for us. She’s so important to our success.”

McBride spurred an 11-0 Irish run from the opening tip, allowing No. 4 Notre Dame (31-3, 15-1 Big East) to jump out to an early lead it would never surrender. After back-to-back 3-pointers by senior guard Natalie Novosel and graduate student guard Brittany Mallory, McBride drained a free throw to complete the traditional 3-point play following a layup.

“It’s the NCAA tournament. You see all these upsets … We don’t want to be that team,” junior guard Skylar Diggins said. “We wanted to make a statement right off the tip and control the tempo right away, and I thought we did that.”

Captaining Notre Dame’s attack, Diggins finished with a team-high nine rebounds and six assists to go along with her seven points. The Irish outrebounded the Lady Flames (24-9, 16-2 Big South) 38-29, a significant feat considering Liberty led the nation with a plus-16.4 rebounding margin.

“[Rebounding] is an area where we’ve struggled, and it’s been a [point] of emphasis the past week,” graduate student forward Devereaux Peters said. “We really focused on it today and tried to box out a lot more. The guards did a good job of boxing out.”

Notre Dame’s ability to crash the boards will be tested once more against No. 8-seeded California, which ranks third in the nation with a plus-13.2 rebounding margin. The Golden Bears (25-9, 13-5 Pac-12) defeated Iowa, 84-74, to advance to the Round of 32 for the fourth time in the program’s history.
Tuesday’s matchup will be a clash of offensive philosophies.
Led by 6’3″ junior center Talia Caldwell and 6’2″ sophomore forward Gennifer Brandon, California runs its offense inside-out, while Notre Dame employs McGraw’s signature four-guard attack.

Despite Cal’s disadvantage on the perimeter, Golden Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb believes California’s size advantage will cause an equally disruptive mismatch for Notre Dame in the frontcourt.

“As much as I can sit here and say, ‘We don’t matchup with their four guards,’ I’m sure they’re saying, ‘We have to be able to defend two post players,'” Gotlieb said. “I think at this point in the year you don’t go away from your identity, and our identity is that we’re very physical inside … We’re predicated on a type of play-through-the-paint idea, and so we’re going to try to make that a factor.”

McGraw said she may adjust her lineup during the contest to account for Cal’s size in the post by using two forwards in Peters and sophomore Natalie Achonwa.

“It’s going to be difficult. Either way it’s going to be a challenge, even if we go with two bigs,” she said. “They are just a great rebounding team – I think a better rebounding team than Liberty. It’s scary watching them rebound, so I think we got to get everybody in there to help. I don’t think we’re going to be able to rely on just one person. We’ll probably try both ways.”

California earned a No. 8 seed in the tournament by finishing second in the Pac-12 and successfully navigating a difficult non-conference schedule. The Golden Bears are also familiar playing in hostile environments against first-rate competition, falling at No. 2 Stanford 74-71 in an overtime loss Jan. 28.

“They’re a dangerous team for sure for a lot of reasons, but mostly because of the talent level,” McGraw said. “They have challenged themselves with an out-of-conference schedule that was demanding, and I think that’s why they’re here.”

That talent includes Cal’s leading scorer, junior guard Layshia Clarendon, who averages 12.7 points per game. Clarendon and an active Golden Bears backcourt, along with their athletic post players, should match Notre Dame’s fast-paced attack.

“They’re really quick and up in your face on defense,” Mallory said. “We can’t get flustered with how they’re going to guard us and just run our stuff. They’re going to run, so it’s going to be an up-paced game.”

The Irish will take on California with a trip to the Raleigh Regional semifinals on the line tonight at 7 p.m. in the Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Chris Masoud at cmasoud@nd.edu