ND Women’s Basketball
Notre Dame, UConn set for top-two showdown
Benjamin Padanilam | Wednesday, December 7, 2016
The top two teams in the country will be squaring off Wednesday night when UConn and Notre Dame meet on the court at Purcell Pavilion.
The Irish (8-0) and Huskies (7-0) being the top-ranked teams and splitting the 33 first-place votes entering Wednesday comes as no surprise. However, where each team stands on that list carries a little twist this week: the No. 2-ranked Irish — who had held the top spot since the season started — were the first team to fall from the No. 1 spot in the AP poll without losing since 2005 when the Huskies jumped them Monday.
“I don’t really care,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said of the drop in the rankings. “It might [provide extra motivation for the players], but I don’t think they really care about it as much either.”
“I think that we had the chip to begin with,” sophomore guard Marina Mabrey said. “ … It really doesn’t matter, we’re going to play the same.”
But regardless of where both teams stand in the AP rankings, the Irish recognize Wednesday night’s game will draw a lot of attention. In fact, the change may have only added to the attention from outsiders, despite its nature as a top-two showdown remaining unchanged.
“There’s a lot of people in the country that will be watching this game with a lot of interest,” McGraw said. “There’s no pressure on us because they’ve got the streak. … They’re No. 1 now, so the pressure’s on them. It’s a little bit like it’s been in the past, where it’s just gonna be a great game between two good teams.”
“This game is really fun because it’s a one-versus-two matchup, and a lot of people are looking forward to it,” Mabrey said. “It would be great to come out with a win just because of the rivalry.”
Many people perceived UConn as a more vulnerable team entering this season without former superstar Breanna Stewart, who was the first three-time AP Player of the Year and four-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player for the first graduating class to win four national championships in NCAA history. However, the Huskies have continued to roll thus far, coming off a week with wins over two top-15 teams to bring their current winning streak to 82 straight games.
Two 19 point-per-game scorers lead the Huskies this year — sophomore guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson and sophomore forward Napheesa Collier — and the Huskies have outscored opponents by an average of just over 24 points per game.
“Well, they don’t have a great player. They don’t have that one player like Stewart that can really just take over the entire game,” McGraw said when evaluating the new-look Huskies. “I think they have a lot of balance — probably more balance than they’ve ever had. You have to guard everybody. There’s not a weak link on the floor. So it’s a very different team.”
“They’re just really athletic, and they compete just like the rest of their teammates do,” senior forward Kristina Nelson said of the Huskies’ bigs in particular. “They’re good — they’re all-around good. They’re able to step out around the perimeter a little bit more than what we’ve faced so far, but we just have to be ready for anything.”
On the other side, the Irish are coming off their most dominant win of the season — a 60-point blowout of Valparaiso — and have outscored opponents by an average of nearly 32 points per game thus far. While the Irish have only allowed 54 points per game defensively — a mark within the nation’s best 30 teams — McGraw believes a sharper defensive performance will be necessary for her team to take down UConn.
“Defensively, I think we’ve got to be better than we’ve been,” McGraw said. “We’ve got to be able to guard them. We’ve got to be able to execute our offense. It always comes down to making shots with UConn — they’re a very good defensive team, and they can score, so you got to be able to score in order to keep up.”
But most of all, McGraw believes it’s important to remember it is only December when the two rivals square off Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion. While she wants to see her team emerge victorious, she is just as focused on seeing how her team handles its first true test of the year.
“A lot of it is about [seeing where we are at right now],” McGraw said. “We need to see where we are. We haven’t really played a great game. … We haven’t really come out and played 40 minutes of a great game, and we’re still learning. We’re still working on a lot of things. … We’ve got a lot of really good positives, but we still have some work to do.
“We haven’t really been tested yet, so this will be a great test for us.”