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ND Women’s Basketball: Irish push for undefeated Big East season

Brian Hartnett | Monday, February 25, 2013

No. 2 Notre Dame has overcome injuries, inexperience and tough competition en route to an undefeated Big East record.

But the Irish have one more major obstacle in their pursuit of regular-season conference perfection – a daunting stretch of four games in nine days, the second of which takes place tonight when they welcome No. 22 Syracuse to Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame (25-1, 13-0 Big East) had little difficulty in its first game of the stretch, an 84-56 win at DePaul on Sunday. Despite the quick turnaround between games, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she isn’t worried about her team’s ability to prepare for Syracuse (22-4, 10-3).

“We’ve played better in stretches like this,” McGraw said. “We had the exact same week in January where we had a quick turnaround. We are anxious to get back in the gym. I think, when you’re playing well, it’s a lot easier to focus and refocus.”

The Irish have been playing well lately thanks partly to the efforts of senior guard Skylar Diggins. Diggins recorded her second career triple-double Sunday, finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

Freshman guard Jewell Loyd and junior guard Kayla McBride also made significant contributions to Notre Dame’s victory Sunday, as they finished with 19 and 16 points, respectively. Loyd earned Big East Freshman of the Week on Monday, the fourth time this season she received the honor.

The Irish will face a Syracuse team that saw its six-game winning streak snapped in the final seconds of a 68-66 loss to South Florida on Saturday. McGraw said she believes the loss will provide the Orange with even more motivation for their trip to South Bend.

“That was a big game for [South Florida], big win for them,” she said. “Coming off a loss, you’re anxious to get back out there and prove you are still a top-25 team, so I think [Syracuse] will come in with a lot to prove.”

The Orange will look to attack the Irish defense with their potent offense, which is averaging 74.0 points per game and ranking third in the conference. Orange senior center Kayla Alexander has been the catalyst for Syracuse’s offense, as she leads the team in scoring with 16.9 points per game and rebounding with 8.3 boards per game.

McGraw said Alexander presents a unique challenge, but the Irish will not just focus on her.

“[Junior forward] Natalie Achonwa will have the assignment [of guarding Alexander],” McGraw said. “But they’re very much a team in that different players step up in different games. I don’t think we can focus on one player because I really think they have probably seven or eight people who are really capable of scoring. No matter who is in the game, I don’t think we’re going to be able to afford to double team anyone.”

Alexander may be Syracuse’s senior leader, but the Orange have also benefitted from the play of senior guards Carmen Tyson-Thomas and Elashier Hall, who both average 10.2 points per game. Most of the rest of the Orange rotation, however, is very young, as freshman guards Brittney Sykes, Brianna Butler and Cornelia Fondren have all seen significant playing time.

Although tonight will not be the last time Irish fans see senior guard Kaila Turner and South Bend native Diggins take the court at Purcell Pavilion, it will mark the team’s annual senior night. Diggins, who trails only Irish associate coach Beth Cunningham on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list, and Turner will be honored in a pregame ceremony.

“[Tonight’s game] is a big game,” McGraw said. “[Syracuse] is ranked in the top 25, it has been in the top 25 all year and it’s going to be a big game.”

Notre Dame will face Syracuse tonight at 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Brian Hartnett at [email protected]