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ND Women’s Basketball: New look to achieve same goal

Brian Hartnett | Thursday, November 1, 2012

The last time No. 7 Notre Dame took the court, the Irish fell by 19 points to No. 1 Baylor in the national championship game. The Irish will look to embark on a return to the national championship hunt when they kick off their new season Thursday with an exhibition against Edinboro at Purcell Pavilion.

The Irish will return to the court with a different look than the team that finished as the national runner-up in April. Notre Dame lost starting guards Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory and starting forward Devereaux Peters when the three leaders graduated in the spring. Irish coach Muffet McGraw said the loss of the three starters leaves the Irish with major holes to fill in the areas of defense and rebounding.

“The biggest thing we’re missing right now is defense and rebounding,” McGraw said. “There are certainly tough shoes to fill, and we’re not going to be the same defensively. We’ll be working to play team defense, relying on a little more help and rotation, and just try to be a smart team overall.”

Notre Dame returns two key starters in senior guard Skylar Diggins and junior guard Kayla McBride. Diggins, who was named a unanimous pre-season All-American for the second consecutive season and tabbed Preseason Big East Player of the Year, comes off a campaign during which she averaged 16.8 points and 5.7 assists per game. McBride averaged 11.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season.

McGraw said Diggins took on a greater leadership role in the off-season and will be essential to the development of the young team.

“Skylar is more of a coach on the floor than she’s ever been before because she has to be,” McGraw said. “She’s encouraged and helped the younger players to step up their games and get them to a level where we can compete for a national championship. She will be counted on to do a little more to put us in the hunt.”

Diggins will work closely with Notre Dame’s freshmen, which were part of a recruiting class ranked as high as third in the country. The Irish added a trio of freshmen guards in Hannah Huffman, Jewell Loyd and Michaela Mabrey and also welcome sophomore guard Madison Cable, who sat out last season with an injury.

“Jewell is really talented and can score and rebound, so we will be counting on her to fill needs from last year,” McGraw said. “Cable is really fundamentally sound. Mabrey will be our first or second person off the bench, and Huffman has really been improving so far.”

McGraw said the exhibition against Edinboro, a team ranked sixth in the preseason USA Today Division II Top 25 Coach’s poll, will give younger players a good introduction to the atmosphere of Purcell Pavilion.

“The first thing we’re going to do is to work the freshmen and give them a chance to be out in front of the crowd and get the game day experience,” she said. “I want to give them some playing time to get them comfortable.”

McGraw said she plans to start Diggins, McBride, Cable, Loyd and sophomore forward Markisha Wright against the Fighting Scots. She said junior forward Natalie Achonwa is slotted to be a starter but is out for the exhibition against Edinboro with an injury.

Achonwa is one of several Irish players who faced international competition over the summer, as she helped the Canadian national team reach the quarterfinals at the Summer Olympics in London. McGraw said she was impressed with Achonwa’s development during the off-season.

“I think Natalie came back a different person,” McGraw said. “She is confident and self-assured and knows what she wants to do. I think her mental game is at a different level.”

In addition, Diggins helped lead the United States to the gold medal at the inaugural FIBA 3×3 World Championships in Athens, Greece in April. Mabrey also represented her country, playing a role on the United States team that won the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, in August.
“I think our players gained some great experience from international competition,” McGraw said. “This experience will give them some great confidence heading into the season.”

The Irish will battle the Fighting Scots on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu