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Bernard: Notre Dame has definitive holes in its armor (Dec. 6)

Cory Bernard | Thursday, December 6, 2012

Despite boasting a preseason top-10 ranking and the nation’s best point guard, questions surrounded Notre Dame before the season began.

Would the loss of forward Devereaux Peters and her shot-blocking, rebounding prowess degrade the Irish defense?
Could senior guard Skylar Diggins shoulder even more of the offensive load with the graduation of backcourt running mates Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory?

In their last two games, wins over UCLA on Nov. 23 and Central Michigan on Nov. 29, Notre Dame showed chinks in its armor. Diggins struggled from the floor in both games. Though she totaled double figures in both contests, she shot a combined 11-for-32 and turned the ball over eight times. Hardly the numbers befitting a three-time All-American. The Bruins also outrebounded the Irish.

In its loss to Baylor on Wednesday, the armor showed more than chinks. It revealed outright holes.

Diggins forced up contested shots and attempted myriad ill-advised passes, trying to generate scoring in the second half as the Irish played from behind. She finished with eight points on 4-for-19 shooting.

Baylor senior center Brittney Griner gashed the Irish frontcourt with her post moves, dominated the defensive glass and altered layup after layup.

At 5-1, Notre Dame is far from the panic button. The season is still young, and the Irish have an opportunity at home Saturday against an outmatched Utah State squad to right the ship.

However, Irish coach Muffet McGraw has to be concerned with some of her team’s trends early in the year.

Her star guard is shooting the lowest percentage of her career and is on pace to shatter her high mark for turnovers in a season. In her team’s first true test against a star post player, the Irish had no answers.

Granted, not every team Notre Dame will face this year will have a center the caliber of Griner. However, the elite teams in NCAA women’s basketball rely on significant post threats. A pair of 6-foot-3 forwards – senior Joslyn Tinkle and junior Chiney Ogwumike – leads No. 1 Stanford in scoring. Likewise, 6-foot-4 freshman forward Breanna Stewart and 6-foot-5 junior center Stefanie Dolson lead No. 2 Connecticut. The Cardinal, the Huskies and the Bears comprise the top three teams in the NCAA, respectively, and they each look to the post for the majority of their offensive output.

This does not mean Notre Dame cannot find success with its smaller lineup. It would not have made back-to-back championship games without the contributions of its skilled backcourt. However, in order to make a third-straight title game appearance, two things will need to occur.

First, Notre Dame will need to drastically improve its post defense. Barring an unexpected growth spurt, 6-foot-3 junior forward Natalie Achonwa will be the tallest player in an Irish uniform all season. This means help defense is paramount. In the first 12 minutes of Wednesday’s game, Notre Dame forced nine turnovers. Its guards constantly disrupted entry passes to Griner and turned the turnovers into points. This team model is the only way Notre Dame will be able to defeat top teams with talent in the paint.

Second, freshman guard Jewell Loyd and junior guard Kayla McBride will have to perform their best Natalie Novosel and Brittney Mallory impressions. The two backcourt players need to take some pressure off Diggins and make defenses think twice before devoting a second defender to the talented senior.

Again, Notre Dame need not worry just yet. The season is long and the inexperienced squad will continue to grow. But this loss was a wake-up call. McGraw and the Irish have work to do if they want to remain among the nation’s best.

Contact Cory Bernard at cbernard@nd.edu
   

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.