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ND Women’s Basketball

No. 5 Notre Dame readies to host No. 6 Tennessee

| Thursday, January 18, 2018

Two of the most successful programs in women’s basketball history will face off Thursday, as No. 5 Notre Dame hosts No. 6 Tennessee at Purcell Pavilion.

For the Irish (16-2, 5-1 ACC), the game will be a chance for Irish head coach Muffet McGraw’s squad to test itself again against top-10 opposition, after last week’s 100-67 capitulation at Louisville, the last time the Irish faced a ranked opponent. The game will also mark the first ranked matchup at home for Notre Dame this season, with the Irish having faced most of their highest-rated opponents on the road or at neutral sites so far. McGraw said she’s happy to finally have a big game in front of a home crowd to give her team some extra motivation when they face adversity.

Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer

Irish junior guard Marina Mabrey protects the ball during Notre Dame’s 121-65 win over Mount St. Mary’s on Nov. 11 at Purcell Pavilion.

“It’s always great to be at home because our fans really motivate us, they inspire us when we really need it,” McGraw said. “They know when to stand when we need them and we’re going to need them for 40 minutes in this game.”

The series between the Irish and the Volunteers (16-1, 4-1 SEC) has been dominated by streaks. First, the Volunteers controlled the matchup, winning each of their first 20 games against Notre Dame. In 2011, the Irish finally ended that streak and earned their first-ever victory over Tennessee, starting a streak of six-consecutive wins. Last year, that streak was snapped when the Volunteers overcame a 15-point deficit to beat the Irish, 71-69.

The eight-time national champion Volunteers were the sport’s dominant force between the mid-1980s and the end of the 2000s, but struggled to live up to their usual standards during the previous two seasons — head coach Holly Warlick’s fourth and fifth in charge — setting the two highest marks in program history for losses in a season with 14 and 12. However, this year saw Tennessee return to a top-10 ranking for the first time since early in the 2015-16 season, winning each of its first 15 games, its longest win streak since the 2010-11 season. That win streak came to an end in overtime at Texas A&M, with the Aggies winning 79-76, but the Volunteers bounced back to beat defending national champions No. 10 South Carolina 86-70. This game marks the third in a four-game stretch of ranked matchups for the Volunteers, who will face national runners-up No. 3 Mississippi State on Sunday.

The Volunteers have five different players averaging 10 or more points per game this season, led by senior forward Jaime Nared and redshirt-senior center Mercedes Russell, who both average more than 17 points per game and appeared alongside Notre Dame’s junior guard Arike Ogunbowale on the 25-player Wooden Award midseason watch list. McGraw said Russell and Nared are extremely talented players, but she believes the Volunteers have enough different options to ensure Notre Dame can’t focus all their attention on the two leading scorers.

“They’re really athletic, they’re long, they can block shots, they’re a great defensive team, they can score,” McGraw said. “You really can’t lay off anyone, they’re all capable scorers. Mercedes Russell can do it inside; Jaime Nared is  the one who beat us last year, she’s capable of having 30, so really everyone on their team is a threat.”

Defensively, Tennessee has proven to be one of the top teams in the nation, holding opponents to a field goal percentage of just 34.8, the 14th-best mark in the nation, and a 3-point percentage of just 25.1. The Volunteers have also proven dominant on the boards, ranked fifth in the nation in rebound margin and fourth in rebounds per game, with both Nared and Russell averaging more than eight rebounds per game and with freshman forward Rennia Davis not far behind with 7.8. Despite the proven talent the Volunteers bring, Ogunbowale, Notre Dame’s leading scorer this season, said she does not believe the Irish need another matchup with a top opponent to prove where they stand.

“I think we only need us for showing where we’re at, no matter who we’re playing, so I’m not really focusing on the opponent, just how we play,” Ogunbowale said.

The Irish and the Volunteers will meet at Purcell Pavilion on Thursday at 7 p.m.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel