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ND Women’s Basketball: Running with the Bulls

Jay Fitzpatrick | Tuesday, February 17, 2009

With the regular season starting to wind down, each game becomes increasingly important – especially when you haven’t been playing at your best.

The Irish have gone 3-5 over the last month, something Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she wants to change tonight at South Florida. But in order to do that, she said she is going to need to make sure her squad is focused on the task at hand.

“I just want to have a sense of urgency about this game,” McGraw said. “I want them to come out ready, to come out with a lot of intensity, and to really get after them defensively and rebound and do the things we can control. That always makes us feel a little bit better about our offense.”

The Irish will need to stay focused against the Bulls to maintain their position as the No. 6 seed in the Big East. Currently, South Florida (5-6, 18-7) sits one game behind the Irish (17-6, 6-5) in the conference standings. McGraw said, however, that she has not emphasized that factor to her players, who already know this is an important game.

“I don’t really stress that too much with the team. We don’t talk about the standings, they know what’s at stake,” she said. “They know how important the game is. It’s important to both teams. This is going to be a huge game.”

The last time the Irish took the court, they hung with one of the best teams in the country – No. 8 Louisville – for most of the game, but could not complete a comeback, losing 71-65. That game was almost a week ago, and the Irish have had plenty of time to rest up since then.

The Irish will need that rest because of South Florida’s prolific perimeter shooting. The Bulls are 189-of-576 shooting from beyond the arc, and have taken more than twice as many threes as the Irish (93-of 277). Bulls junior guard Janae Stokes has already launched 202 3-point attempts, connecting on 82 of those for a .402 shooting percentage from distance.

“That’s gonna be huge. We need to step up and guard the 3-point line, especially when they’re playing at home, they’re gonna shoot the ball a little bit better,” McGraw said. “We really have to be ready to get out and guard Stokes in particular, but [senior guard Shantia] Grace is a good 3-point shooter as well.”

Grace leads the Bulls with 14.7 points per game, and is shooting 35.8 percent from 3-point land.

Although Stokes has “the hot hand,” McGraw said, having lit up the scoreboard so often recently, Grace will still be a major threat in the Bulls’ offense.

“And Grace, with the great assist-to-turnover ratio that she has (107-to-57), she is very dangerous because she can find people inside, she can find them in transition, and she can score,” McGraw said.

The best way to combat the Bulls’ high-powered offense, which scores 80.4 points per game, McGraw said, is to get back to playing fundamentally sound defense.

“We want to get back to the way we were playing earlier in the year. We want to shoot the ball a little bit better; we want to defend a little bit better. We want to do a little bit better at everything,” McGraw said. “We want to take better care of the ball, and we want to rebound better. I think those are the things that we were doing earlier in the year…. We’re playing better; I think we just need to get everybody playing better. “

One Irish player that is already playing at that level is forward Becca Bruszewski. The 6-foot-2 sophomore is averaging 9.9 points per game, but scored 18 against Louisville on Feb. 11, 14 against DePaul on Feb. 8 and 14 against Pittsburgh on Feb. 3.

“She’s really playing well, and I think she’s comfortable, I think she’s loose. She’s just going out and playing, she’s not worried about things,” McGraw said of Bruszewski. “She’s doing the things that she’s good at. She’s shooting the ball well from the 3-point line and she’ll run the floor and scoring inside. She’s really showing versatility with what she’s good at.”

McGraw also said that Bruszewski’s looseness is something she would like to spread to the rest of the team.

“I think that’s what we need. I think the seniors feel like it’s up to them and it’s their responsibility to lead us and to play well. That makes you feel a little bit more pressure. That would be good if we could all just relax. At the same time play hard, but I think you need to be a little more relaxed.”

Tip-off for the game is scheduled for 7 p.m. from the Sun Dome in Tampa, Fla.