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3-point defense finally shows up

Jay Fitzpatrick | Saturday, March 7, 2009

HARTFORD, Conn. – Before almost every game this season, Irish coach Muffet McGraw has said that she wants her team to play better defense. And after most of those games, McGraw would come into the media room and talk about how she was not pleased with how the Irish played defensively.

It was a vicious cycle.

But after Notre Dame’s 62-45 win over St. John’s in the second round of the Big East tournament, she finally walked away happy.

“I was really pleased with the defense,” she said. “I thought we did a great job guarding the 3-point line.”

One of McGraw’s mantras for the last few years has been that she is confident her team can win in a 60-point game. And so far this season she has been proven right. The Irish are 7-1 when they and their opponents both scored under 70 points this season, with the only loss coming in a 55-48 loss at Villanova on Jan. 24. (Incidentally, the Wildcats are Notre Dame’s opponent in the conference quarterfinals).

At first glance, Notre Dame’s defense played one of its better games against Villanova. It was the lowest score the Irish allowed in conference play, and only LSU (53) and Boston College (54) scored fewer points if early-season cupcake games against Georgia Southern (36) and Loyola-Chicago (45) are omitted.

Maybe it was just that the normally potent Irish offense – which averaged 72.7 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting this season – had a rare off-night when it shot 32.7 percent from the floor en route to only 48 points. Or maybe it was the 7 assists compared to 14 turnovers the Irish had that game.

But a closer look shows exactly what let the team down in Philadelphia.

The Wildcats that game scored more than half of their points from 3-point land, and shot 10-of-27 (37 percent) from beyond the arc during the game. And when 3-point defense is a point of emphasis for your team – which it has been for at least three years for McGraw – that is a little embarrassing.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon against the Red Storm. The Irish played tough defense for all 40 minutes, forcing St. John’s to shoot only 2-of-10 from 3-point distance. The Red Storm were 7-of-19 in their regular season matchup with Notre Dame on Jan. 17. More importantly, St. John’s guard Kelly McManmon went only 1-of-6 from 3-point distance in the game, after shooting just under 40 percent all season.

“I thought McManmon was going to key to the game and we did a really nice job taking her away,” McGraw said. “[Irish guard] Ashley Barlow did a great job on her as well when we were in the zone. We did a really good job finding her all the time.”

Red Storm coach Kim Barnes Arico said she thought that the Irish defended McManmon better than anyone has all season.

“They did a tremendous job on her,” Barnes Arico said. “They really denied her the ball well. … They really took her out of the game and we didn’t find her.”

What the Irish did Saturday against the Red Storm is what it needs to continue to do if it wants to advance far into this postseason.

Looming for the Irish are great chances to exorcise some demons and impress the NCAA Selection Committee come March 16.

Villanova is a personal grudge match, where the Irish can show how just how much better they have gotten defensively against one of the teams that exposed their weaknesses. Beating Villanova is also brings with it a rematch with the ultimate “one that got away” – top-ranked and undefeated Connecticut, who the Irish played tighter than almost anyone else all season.

But for now the Irish need to make sure they lock up their defense against Villanova. And it Saturday’s game was any indication of things to come, they shouldn’t have too much to worry about.