ND Women’s Basketball
Griffin: Notre Dame has experience where it matters
Renee Griffin | Saturday, March 25, 2017
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Experience won out Friday night at the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena — but not the kind of experience that’s measured by a player’s minutes on the floor.
If anything, the dominance of freshmen and sophomores in Notre Dame’s 99-76 victory over Ohio State in the Sweet 16 made that type of experience seem almost negligible.
Freshman forward Erin Boley and freshman guard Jackie Young didn’t care that it was their first appearance in an NCAA tournament regional. Filling in for injured junior Brianna Turner, Boley scored 14 points — including four 3-pointers — and picked up nine rebounds. Young was literally perfect, shooting 4-for-4 from the field and going 5-for-5 from the free-throw line to boot.
Meanwhile, sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale scored a personal-best 32 points. Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said pressure is a word Ogunbowale “doesn’t know the meaning of.” Sophomore guard Marina Mabrey added 14 points.
Clearly, with these young players taking over when the stakes are at their highest, the number of minutes played on a collegiate court is far from the most important factor in a team’s March success.
Rather, the kind of experience that helps fuel Notre Dame seems to be on a grander, program-wide scale. The Irish are playing in their 22nd-consecutive NCAA tournament, and this was their eighth Sweet 16 in a row.
That means McGraw and her staff know how to prepare a team for these big-time matchups, even when a star player like Turner goes down and disrupts the usual gameplan.
It also means that the Irish come in with a mentality that schools like Ohio State — which was making its first back-to-back Sweet 16 appearance since a five-year run in the 1980s — simply cannot match.
For example: McGraw expressed pride, and maybe some surprise, that Boley was able to play relaxed and loose despite shouldering huge responsibility in front of a home-state crowd. This is certainly a testament to Boley as a player, but also to Notre Dame as a program. Irish upperclassmen and underclassmen alike can play with cool confidence (note: this is different from complacency), because if their predecessors could win these games, why can’t they?
Notre Dame’s recent history of success draws top recruits, sure. But the ability of those top recruits to make an impact in their first-ever NCAA tournament depends more on the name on the front of their jersey than the one on the back.
And Notre Dame, obviously, is not the only team in the tournament that benefits from this institutional experience. Connecticut’s invulnerability is an even clearer exemplification.
Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff — who worked as an assistant coach under McGraw from 1996 to 2002 — made a similar assessment in his remarks after the game.
“It’s hard in women’s basketball to really jump into that elite group at the top,” McGuff said. “Notre Dame and Connecticut and Baylor, they’ve been doing it for a long time. They’re not going to go anywhere. You have to really, really fight and scratch and claw.”
So, while the win over Ohio State validated that Notre Dame was elite — and Elite — even without Turner, that was something we should have already known by looking at the team’s history under McGraw.
It’s the games against squads with a similar predisposition to dominance — the squads that will likely fill the Final Four — that will truly test the Irish.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.