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ND Women’s Basketball Analysis: Scarlet Knights played like they wanted it more

Bill Brink | Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The two coaches’ first statements of their post-game press conferences helped illustrate the reasons behind No. 17 Notre Dame’s 78-68 loss to Rutgers Tuesday night.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw apologized to the fans. “I didn’t think we played with the intensity, the effort, the enthusiasm and the energy that we needed today, and I thought Rutgers did,” she said.

Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer?

“We really needed that one,” she said. “If you guys don’t mind, we needed it more than you did.”

That’s the attitude Notre Dame, who has lost three of its last four games, needed Tuesday. How could they possibly not need it? Life gets no easier from here – four of Notre Dame’s next five Big East opponents have records of .500 or better in conference play, and after that stretch, the Irish travel to play No. 1 Connecticut.

The easy way to put it is, lots of things went wrong, but they were the same things that have gone wrong before. Notre Dame shot bricks once again in the first half, much like it did in the loss to Villanova Saturday. The Irish made 7-of-25 shots in the first half; they made 6-of-24 against the Wildcats.

The Irish were 4-of-22 from 3-point range. Freshman forward Kellie Watson’s 0-for-8 performance was an outlier, but so were the three 3-pointers in the final 1:27 that made the score a lot closer than the game was.

“We’re a guard-oriented team, so if the perimeter’s not working, we’re not going to win,” McGraw said.

Three-point defense has haunted the Irish for the better part of three seasons, and their zone defense allowed the Scarlet Knights to make four threes in the first 5:16. Rutgers guard Brittany Ray made four en route to 26 points on the night.

It doesn’t help that Scarlet Knights leading scorer Epiphanny Prince made all 12 of her free throws, scored 24 points and had nine rebounds when Notre Dame’s intention was to make sure it knew where she was.

“[It] was mostly just a lack of awareness and effort,” McGraw said. “[Prince and Ray] were the two we wanted to guard. We guarded the other ones pretty well, but we left the best ones open.”

Ray did as she pleased with the defense. She shot over the zone, and when the Irish switched to a box-and-one zone and had junior guard Melissa Lechlitner shadow her, Ray used her teammates’ screens to get free and drive the lane.

“When I hit that first shot it felt good, and it gave me the confidence to shoot more,” Ray said.

The Scarlet Knights’ post players also did what they wanted. McGraw said before the game rebounds would decide it, and Rutgers’ 10-board advantage certainly helped fuel their transition game and keep the Irish from second chances.

“They did what they wanted to do,” McGraw said. “That’s probably the most disappointing part.”

Notre Dame didn’t hit a field goal until 10:23 remaining in the first half, when freshman guard Natalie Novosel made a layup. By that time the score was 17-6; Rutgers had a 17-0, six-minute run to put it ahead. Notre Dame’s sloppy shooting never let it get closer than seven the rest of the way.

Some of those shots hit nothing but backboard, and more than a few airballed. McGraw said some of it had to do with shot selection, and junior guard Ashley Barlow said the team needed to regain its confidence. Whatever the cause, McGraw is right: a guard-oriented team can’t afford to shoot poorly.

Rutgers shot poorly in the first half as well. So what did it do? Score 22 points in the paint and shoot 50 percent from the field in the second half. The Scarlet Knights dug themselves out of it. Notre Dame needs to learn how and regain its confidence.

That, and stop the three. The box-and-one worked – Ray didn’t make a three in the second half. Force the shooters to drive the lane. In fact, give them no other option. Get right up in their faces until they’re itching to blow past you.

The threes aren’t falling on offense? Feed inside to the taller forwards or centers, or drive the ball, like Novosel did Tuesday. She finished with 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting, made a few layups and drew three fouls driving the lane. She knew what would help the offense score.

“I tried to take advantage of the first step and attack the basket,” she said. “Penetrating and creating more opportunities in transition will help our shooting.”

Such wisdom for a freshman.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not neccessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Bill?Brink at [email protected]