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Bernard: ND playing up to tournament standards (Feb. 12)

Cory Bernard | Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Big East tournament does not begin until March 8, and the NCAA tournament does not begin until March 23. But make no mistake, the Irish played a tournament game Monday night. They did a number of things better than Louisville in their 29-point victory. No. 2 Notre Dame shot better from the floor than the No. 10 Cardinals by a wide margin and collected almost twice as many rebounds. But the Irish also bested Louisville in an intangible yet immensely important category: intensity.

The intensity began barely two minutes into the game. After a perfectly executed slip screen by Irish junior forward Ariel Braker, Louisville guard Bria Smith had no choice but to follow the forward to the block. That left Cardinals forward Sara Hammond guarding senior guard Skylar Diggins 30 feet from the basket. After a ruthless crossover, Diggins drained a jumper and immediately looked toward the Irish bench, shaking her head assuredly. Twenty seconds later, Diggins converted a steal into a fast break layup and forced the first timeout of the game.

The confident look from Irish coach Muffet McGraw as the starters headed to the bench said it all. Diggins had brought her “A” game. Her tournament-caliber game. As the senior leader goes, so too go the Irish. The team’s focus from the first whistle signaled a long night for Louisville.

It wasn’t a one-woman show, however. With 5:18 to play in the first half, Irish junior guard Kayla McBride fouled Smith, sending her crashing to the floor. Although Smith left the game briefly, nothing about the play was dirty. McBride went for the ball, and McGraw even thought she had made a clean block. Nonetheless, it sent a message. In a nationally televised game against a ranked opponent, Notre Dame was not going to concede anything easy.

Even the freshmen got in on the action. One minute after McBride’s hard foul, guard Jewell Loyd found herself with the ball in transition, ahead of all but one Cardinal defender. Rather than force a shot, she fired an accurate cross-court pass to her classmate Michaela Mabrey, who drained a 20-foot jumper. Mabrey’s shot forced another Louisville timeout and drew an approving high-five from the captain Diggins. The intensity was infectious.

These are good signs for a streaking Irish team as it winds down the regular season. They demonstrated the ability to put away a quality team at home. Notre Dame was coming off a two-game road trip during which it had trouble executing. In victories over Villanova and Seton Hall, the Irish let their opponents hang around. They made sure this wasn’t the case in front of the friendly Purcell Pavilion crowd Monday night.

Luckily for Notre Dame, the combined record of the final three teams it must face on the road is 36-34, and 12-18 in Big East play. It will play tough games against No. 23 Syracuse and No. 3 Connecticut at home.

Though the Irish still have nearly a month left in the regular season, they have clearly demonstrated one thing: They possess the ability to flip the switch. Behind the leadership of the veteran Diggins, Notre Dame can raise its intensity like it did Monday and make another deep tournament run.

Contact Cory Bernard at [email protected]

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