ND Women’s Basketball
Green: Injuries hold back Notre Dame against rival UConn
Mary Green | Monday, December 7, 2015
When Notre Dame faced UConn in the national championship game last April, the Irish were confident as ever. They had one of the best players in the country in their starting five — the best player, as several coaches argued during the course of the season — steady confidence and a healthy lineup, something they weren’t afforded in the Final Four the year before.
That team lost to the Huskies on a neutral court by 10, 63-53.
The top rivalry in women’s college hoops resumed for a rematch Saturday, but the circumstances were much different than they were in Tampa, Florida, eight months ago.
Notre Dame brought back just two starters from that Final Four squad, with guard Jewell Loyd now in the WNBA and forwards Brianna Turner and Taya Reimer out with injuries.
The outlook for the future down low didn’t look much more hopeful either, as Turner’s injury to the same shoulder that bothered her last season might cost her all of her sophomore campaign, while Reimer’s ability to take the court depends on how high her pain tolerance is — not too ideal a situation.
With their two main post players sidelined, head coach Muffet McGraw had to use a four-guard lineup, with just one forward to take on 2015 Naismith winner Breanna Stewart. For most of the game, that was sophomore Kathryn Westbeld, a reserve from last year, with mixes of junior Kristina Nelson, whose injuries have largely kept her off the floor until this season.
And Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut, certainly isn’t a neutral court, especially when the Irish come to town.
The result was still the same, a defeat for Notre Dame, but so was the difference in score, this time at 91-81.
The Huskies didn’t return their entire starting lineup from last season, either, with Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis gone after graduation, but Gabby Williams has stepped into her new role as a starter with much improvement.
But somehow the Irish were down just two at halftime, were buried by a 22-point deficit near the start of the fourth quarter and cut the UConn lead to just 10 at the final buzzer.
For Notre Dame, a loss is still probably just a loss — you aren’t one of the only teams in the country that can challenge UConn by accepting moral victories and patting yourselves on the back for a well-played game — but there’s plenty of optimism to take away from this game, and from the last week of games the Irish have played, with wins against No. 24 UCLA and No. 10 Ohio State.
During the ESPN broadcast Saturday, play-by-play commentator Dave O’Brien said viewers around the country probably couldn’t believe how the game was playing out, considering the tough string of injuries that have affected Notre Dame.
But if we know anything about the consistent identity of the Irish over the past years, it’s that not too much can really slow them down for a long period of time. The team and its coaches have way too much talent for that to happen.
The plan at the beginning of the season, as it usually is for Notre Dame, was to go with a guard-heavy game plan. Then after freshman Ali Patberg tore her ACL, it shifted to a forward-heavy plan. But without Reimer and Turner, it’s been the four-guard rotation, and still the Irish outrebounded a big Ohio State squad and were edged on the boards by UConn by just four rebounds.
Notre Dame can win with its guards, but what will stop opponents is the question of which guard will lead it to victory.
On Saturday, it was almost freshman Marina Mabrey — she of 21 points and 9-of-11 shooting in the first half against the Huskies, along with a triple-double four games ago. UConn was able to stop her in her tracks in the second half, but that caliber of defense and quickness in adapting the game plan won’t come from many other teams.
Against Ohio State, it was graduate student Madison Cable, who picked up a double-double with 25 points, 11 rebounds and five 3-pointers.
And you can never rule out junior Lindsay Allen, who showed how dangerous her offense can be when it sparks up during last year’s NCAA tournament, or Michaela Mabrey, whose shooting from behind the arc, when it’s on point, is just as difficult to stop.
Notre Dame also lost to UConn at this point in the season last year, but it was an 18-point defeat at Purcell Pavilion, also without an injured Turner.
The game was much closer this time with an even more hampered lineup, showing the Irish aren’t going anywhere — not that it should really be a surprise to anyone by this point.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.