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ND Women’s Basketball

Notre Dame guns for third consecutive ACC title

| Thursday, March 3, 2016

Whenever No. 2 Notre Dame takes the court at Purcell Pavilion, the stands are packed, most of the time at almost full capacity, with fans decked out in blue, gold and the ubiquitous lime green.

But when the Irish go down to Greensboro, North Carolina, for this weekend’s ACC tournament as the conference’s top seed, they’re not expecting that same kind of friendly reception.

“The welcoming committee gets smaller and smaller every year we go down there, and I think that we’ll have a lot of people cheering against us,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think that they’d like to see some of the familiar teams win, and so it’ll be good for us to really get motivated to be ready.”

There will be plenty of teams eager to knock off the top-seeded Irish (28-1, 16-0 ACC), with plenty reason: In just three seasons in the conference, Notre Dame has collected three outright regular-season titles, two conference tournament rings and amassed a 47-1 ACC record, along with all but locking in a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

On paper, it might not look like the Irish have much to be challenged by, especially after sweeping ACC competition with a perfect 16-0 record this season. But that’s not how McGraw, who was named this season’s ACC Coach of the Year on Wednesday, and her team see it.

They’ll open the tournament Friday with a matchup against the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 8 seed Duke and No. 9 seed Virginia. This season, the Irish edged the Blue Devils (19-11, 8-8) on the road Feb. 1, 68-61, and blew past the Cavaliers (16-14, 6-10) on Jan. 7, 74-46.

Notre Dame then would most likely play No. 4 seed Florida State in the semifinals, followed by either No. 2 seed Louisville or No. 3 seed Syracuse in the championship game.

“We’ve got a tough, tough draw with Duke ending up in the 8/9 game, which — nobody expected that,” McGraw said. “Florida State was picked to finish second, finishes fourth, and then Louisville and Syracuse in the other games, so it looks like we’re played what were originally the top three teams in the league each round, if we can advance.

“And that is gonna be a big question for us. I think this is the toughest draw, and we’ve gotta be ready. Duke really will be ready for us, and everybody will be. Everybody’s trying to knock us off and make their seed in the NCAA tournament a little better, so we’ve gotta be ready.”

McGraw said she has noticed her players, especially the younger ones, lose focus in the second halves of games recently, a trend her veteran leaders add they’ve seen as well and need to correct if they want to capture their third consecutive tournament title.

“Us, as upperclassmen, we’ve got to set that mentality,” senior guard Michaela Mabrey said. “It’s not a game. It is possible for us to lose. I know that they [the freshmen] might not think that that’s a thing, but it is. I think just setting the tone of being really mentally and physically focused.”

Joining Mabrey in the starting lineup will the be usual group of junior guard Lindsay Allen, graduate student guard Madison Cable and sophomore forward Brianna Turner, all three of whom were named Tuesday to the 10-player All-ACC first team, while Turner earned the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award Wednesday.

However, the fifth spot is still up in the air, as usual starting forward Kathryn Westbeld has not played since suffering an ankle injury against Florida State on Feb. 22, and she has not participated in practice through Tuesday of this week.

McGraw said Westbeld is “probable” for Friday’s game, adding she hoped to have her back in practice by Thursday.

“We’re a little thin in the post, and without Kat lately, it’s seemed even worse,” McGraw said. “I like the four-guard look, but we play a couple of teams that have a lot of big guys, so it’s difficult to go four guards against some of them, so I think subbing is goings to be really key. We’re going to really need the freshmen to be ready; we’re going to need Koko [junior forward Kristina Nelson] and [junior forward] Diamond [Thompson] and [sophomore guard] Mychal Johnson; we’re going to need everybody, so everybody has to be able to come in for three or four minutes and give somebody a spell and give them a rest.”

Fortunately for McGraw, the freshmen she’s tasked with being ready for the tournament are two of the conference’s best: Both Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale were selected for the ACC All-Freshman team Tuesday.

With a target on their back, the Irish will open the ACC tournament on Friday at 2 p.m. against either Duke or Virginia, with possible semifinal and final-round games to take place Saturday and Sunday, respectively. All matchups will be held at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the tournament’s winner will secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

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