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ND Women’s Basketball: No. 2 ND to welcome Akron in opener

Kelsey Manning | Thursday, November 10, 2011

The No. 2 Irish are set to open a difficult regular season schedule as they host Akron in the first round of the Preseason Women’s National Invitational tournament (WNIT) tonight.

Notre Dame’s sole exhibition game, an 83-31 victory over defending Canadian national champion Windsor, saw both the triumphant return of sophomore guard Kayla McBride, who turned in a 21-point performance, and the untimely exit of senior guard and co-captain Brittany Mallory due to a knee injury. Mallory appeared healthy in practice Thursday, and Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she is hopeful of Mallory’s full and speedy recovery.

“[Mallory’s] been feeling really well,” she said. “[Thursday was] her first day out allowed to go full court, and she said she felt pretty good before practice, so we’ll see how she feels [Friday]. I think we’re going to get a few minutes out of her.”

A leader on and off the court, McGraw said Mallory’s presence is a big difference-maker.

“It’s just huge,” she said. “It settles us down, I think it puts us in a little better rhythm and allows us to start planning for how we’re really going to play at the beginning of the game.”

The Mallory factor will be particularly crucial after a rocky start against Windsor. With early minutes filled with missed shots and turnovers from the Irish, McGraw admitted that it took Notre Dame some time to get going.

“I think that we were trying too hard initially to get a big lead in the first play of the game,” McGraw said. “I thought we settled down.”

Aside from first-game nervousness, the 52-point victory revealed a few other areas for improvement for the Irish. In a 52-point win over Windsor, the Irish bested the Lancers by just one defensive rebound, 22-21. Particularly with such a guard-heavy squad, McGraw emphasized the importance of improvement on the boards.

“We really think [senior guard] Natalie Novosel and [sophomore guard] Kayla McBride should be, after [fifth-year forward] Deveraux [Peters], our next leading rebounders,” she said. “We’re really expecting them to rebound a lot from the guard spot. If we’re going to play four guards, they have to be able to do that. And then [freshman forward] Marquisha Wright … She has to be able to rebound for us too.”

McGraw also cited sophomore forward Ariel Braker as a potential help to the Irish on the rebounding front, especially with sophomore forward Natalie Achonwa currently out with injury.

“It’s really important for [Braker] to come in and give us some defensive rebounding, block some shots and help us in the press,” she said. “I think that’s something we really need right now with [Achonwa] out. We don’t have the post presence that we need, and it’s an opportunity for her right now to really step up and give us some good minutes.”

Akron will present a strong defensive test for Notre Dame in junior forward Rachel Tecca. Though the Zips enter the 2011-2012 season having lost the leading scorer in program history in Kara Murphy, they return four starters and six experienced reserves. Top among those returnees is Tecca, a first-team All-MAC selection in both the 2010-2011 season and the 2011-2012 preseason.

“They’ve got a really good player ⎯ Tecca,” McGraw said. “She was preseason first team in the MAC, a really good scorer. She’s like a guard in a 6’1, 6’2 body. She’s quick off the dribble, she can shoot it, she can drive it, she can score on the block, she’s a really good rebounder. She’s a tough defensive match up for us.”

Another challenge will be the WNIT tournament set-up, with games on both Friday and Sunday. McGraw said this quick turnaround is a good preview of the NCAA tournament.

“Well this is like an NCAA tournament for us,” she said. “We’ve got the Friday-Sunday look, and whether we win or lose, we come back and play on Sunday, so it’s a great opportunity for us to really get focused on what are we going to do on Saturday, how we’re going to recover after the game Friday night.”

After just one exhibition game followed by nine days of practice, McGraw said her team is ready to kick off its regular season.

“I think we’re anxious for a game,” she said. “I think we look pretty good in practice, but I think we’re ready for some outside competition.”

The Irish will take on Akron in the first round of the WNIT Friday at 7 p.m. in the Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Kelsey Manning at [email protected]