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ND Women’s Basketball

Depth set Irish apart this season

| Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Is this the year?

Is this the season that the Irish finally break through and cut down the nets for the second time in program history? They did it in 2001 but have found themselves just short on several occasions since. In the last five seasons, they’ve worked their way to the championship four times, only to end the game on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

This season, No. 3 Notre Dame has been a well-oiled offensive machine. The Irish (21-1, 9-0 ACC) are eighth in scoring offense, sixth in scoring margin, seventh in assists-per-game, fourth in field-goal percentage and first in 3-point field-goal percentage amongst Division I teams.

Yet, this has been the same script the Irish have followed so often before. They’ve found themselves in the top-10 in each of these categories over the last four seasons, often ranking higher than they do this season. Despite this track record, it has not been enough for the Irish to clear that final hurdle. In each of the last three seasons, they have fallen to that familiar foe who continues to be a thorn in their side: the reigning champion for three years running, No. 1 Connecticut.

And the Huskies (20-0, 10-0 AAC) appear to be the top contender for this year’s title as well. They currently lead all Division 1 teams in scoring offense and scoring margin, winning games by an average of nearly 41 points and displaying a dominance that has come to be expected of them. Additionally, the Huskies already beat the Irish earlier this season, 91-81, on Dec. 5.

Irish freshman guard Arike Ogunbowale drives towards the lane during Notre Dame’s 79-66 win over Tennessee on Jan. 18. GRACE TOURVILLE | The Observer

Irish freshman guard Arike Ogunbowale drives towards the lane during Notre Dame’s 79-66 win over Tennessee on Jan. 18.

Oh, and the Huskies are not the only team that continues to breeze through the competition this season. No. 2 South Carolina is also currently undefeated, sitting at an equally impressive mark of 21-0, and winning games by an average of nearly 20 points.

Sounds like this season is following that all too familiar script as well.

Or is it?

This season’s script actually appears to be a little bit different than past. In each of the last three seasons, the Irish have had four players average at least eight points-per-game scoring. This season, however, they have six. And this doesn’t include senior guard Michaela Mabrey, who has been a go-to scorer for the Irish in the past.

But that’s not to say Mabrey has underperformed this season. In reality, the team is just deeper than it has been in the past. Sophomore forward Brianna Turner and junior guard Lindsay Allen have continued their strong performances from last season. Graduate student guard Madison Cable and sophomore forward Kathryn Westbeld have flourished in the large roles as first-time starters this season.

The difference for this squad is the scoring off the bench they get, particularly from freshmen guards Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale. Both are averaging double digit points-per-game this season, something the Irish have not had from a single player off their bench the last three seasons. The top of Irish roster has consistently contributed over the years, but this newfound depth has allowed Irish head coach Muffet McGraw to try different lineups and enable the team to overcome early-season injuries and the departure of junior forward Taya Reimer.

Within context, even the lone blemish on Notre Dame’s resume this season can be seen positively. The 10-point win is tied for the narrowest margin of victory the Huskies have had this season, and it was against an Irish squad that was without its top-scorer Turner, who was out with a shoulder injury. Despite lacking its interior offense and defense, the Notre Dame moved the ball effectively and found open shooters, thanks to the depth they possess on the perimeter. They shot 13-20 from beyond the arc in the loss, a marked improvement over the 15-44 total from the three postseason losses they’ve suffered at the hands of the Huskies.

Even when the 3s have failed to fall for the Irish, they’ve found generated offense to win games. Westbeld’s improvement has given them a player they can run the offense through from the high post against the zone, while Turner’s continued inside presence gives them a go-to option when opposing defenses play tighter along the perimeter.

The Irish have been a perennial title-contender season after season. Yet, this could be the best team, top to bottom, that McGraw has had to work with in a while. There’s still a long way to go in the season, but so far Notre Dame’s performance has left people wondering: Is this the year?

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About Benjamin Padanilam

As The Observer's Editor-in-Chief, Ben is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) who is pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics as well. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

Contact Benjamin