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ND Women’s Basketball

Poor defense early dooms Irish against Cardinal

| Wednesday, March 30, 2016

LEXINGTON, Ky. — “Offense wasn’t really a problem tonight. It was defense.”

Irish head coach Muffet McGraw summed up the performance of her star sophomore forward Brianna Turner on Friday in those two quick sentences, but they also described Notre Dame’s night as a whole.

Irish sophomore forward Brianna Turner shoots the ball during Notre Dame's 90-84 loss to Stanford in the Sweet 16 on Friday night in Lexington, Kentucky.Caitlyn Jordan | The Observer

Irish sophomore forward Brianna Turner shoots the ball during Notre Dame’s 90-84 loss to Stanford in the Sweet 16 on Friday night in Lexington, Kentucky.

While the Irish offense plugged away with its usual efficiency, matching its season averages in points and field goal percentage, the defense sputtered throughout the first quarter and never recovered.

That lackluster defensive performance, coupled with a lights-out shooting performance from Stanford, put Notre Dame in a hole from which it could not escape, dooming the squad to its earliest NCAA tourney exit since 2010.

In the game’s opening 10 minutes, the Cardinal took a 28-21 lead, shooting 61 percent from the field. It was Notre Dame’s biggest first-quarter deficit of the year since the Irish lost to Connecticut on Dec. 5, and it was also the second most points they had surrendered in any quarter all year, behind only a 29-point period against DePaul.

“You can’t spot a team with that kind of shooting percentage in the first half and expect to kind of dig your way out of the hole in the second half,” Irish junior guard Lindsay Allen said of her team’s early defensive woes.

Leading the way for Stanford, junior forward Erica McCall racked up 10 points and three rebounds on 5-for-6 shooting in the first quarter.

“She was just making all her shots in the first half and she was really great rebounding,” Turner said of McCall’s performance. “I needed to get closer to her and make sure I had a hand in her face no matter how far out she was.”

Perhaps most importantly, McCall was able to battle down low and avoid the long arms of Turner, who led the ACC in blocks this season. While Turner had two blocks in the first quarter, neither of them came against the 6-foot-3 forward, and afterwards she said she began the game without aggressiveness, which cost her against an opponent McGraw said was vastly improved from the two squads’ last meeting.

And on the rare occasion when McCall and the Cardinal did miss, Turner and the Irish failed to collect rebounds, allowing Stanford to grab four offensive boards, as many total rebounds as Notre Dame had in the entire period.

But it wasn’t just in the post where Notre Dame’s defense fell short. Stanford shot 3-for-6 from 3-point territory in the first quarter, the start of an epic night for the Cardinal, who finished the game at 11-for-20 beyond the arc.

The Irish perimeter defense was not helped by the absence of Allen, who picked up two fouls in the first quarter and headed to the bench, and senior guard Hannah Huffman, a defensive specialist who was on the floor for fewer than two minutes early on.

Still, even had they had been playing, McGraw said, sometimes Stanford’s shots were simply too good to be stopped.

“I think every team has a game like this where everything’s just going your way and shots are falling and you’re getting a big lead,” McGraw said. “So it’s kind of contagious.”

And the Irish were never able to prevent the opportunities for those shots. Notre Dame entered the matchup forcing 17.38 turnovers per game, or 4.35 per quarter. The team coaxed just one from Stanford in the first quarter, off one of Turner’s blocks. The Irish did not steal the ball at all.

Senior guard Michaela Mabrey said the team’s defensive problems came as a result of the players’ failure to talk on the floor.

“All our defense, we had no communication at all, and I tried to reinforce that at halftime, because that was all our problem was, just communicating,” Mabrey said. “We just couldn’t get it down at all, and so it was just frustrating because I know that’s an easy thing we can switch.”

Down seven points a quarter in, the Irish would eventually rally to within two late in the fourth quarter, but as Mabrey acknowledged, that initial deficit was something the team is unused to facing.

“It just kind of sucks. … It’s really frustrating when they’re making everything they throw up,” she said.

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

Contact Greg