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ND Women’s Basketball

O’Boyle: Irish depth still a question after first round

| Saturday, March 18, 2017

Before the season began, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw called her 2016-17 lineup “the deepest team I’ve ever had.”

So one game into the NCAA tournament, why does it still feel like Irish performances are defined by a few stars?

The Irish cruised to a comfortable 30-point win over the Colonials. It was never in doubt, unless you count a 10-0 Robert Morris run that tied up the game midway through the first quarter. But this program is held to high standards, and winning first round games isn’t enough — especially when you consider that 30 points is the smallest margin of victory a top-seeded Notre Dame team has ever had over a 16 seed. The Irish will surely try to focus only on Purdue — a team they should beat — this weekend, but they began this season as the top-ranked team in the country and entered the tournament as probably the most likely team to dethrone Connecticut. Yet, it’s hard to say this team looks championship caliber all the way from top to bottom.

Of course, senior guard Lindsay Allen and junior forward Brianna Turner are two of the best players in the country. Sure, sophomore guards Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale are fantastic scorers and have improved defensively in recent weeks. And yes, junior forward Kathryn Westbeld — when healthy — is a vital contributor in every facet of the game. But it takes more than five players to win a championship, especially when one player, like Westbeld, is out.

Irish junior forward Brianna Turner drives down the lane during Notre Dame’s 79-49 win over Robert Morris on Friday at Purcell Pavilion.Daniel O'Boyle
Irish junior forward Brianna Turner drives down the lane during Notre Dame’s 79-49 win over Robert Morris on Friday at Purcell Pavilion.

By halftime against the Colonials, the Irish bench had only two points. Through the opening three quarters, they scored only six. Throw in freshman forward Erin Boley, who was starting because of Westbeld’s ankle injury — which has kept the junior limited since January — but would be on the bench in an ideal scenario, and that number remains the same. Notre Dame added eleven bench points in the fourth quarter and Boley chipped in with five, but the game was out of reach by then, so the replacements naturally saw far more opportunities.

Scoring isn’t everything — a bench unit that doesn’t score many points is perfectly fine if it contributes in other ways. And with Mabrey and Ogunbowale in the starting lineup, players who can facilitate, rebound and defend may be more valuable than scorers. But in the rest of the game, the bench’s impact is still not enough.

Freshman guard Jackie Young is a superb rebounder for her position and added nine today, but she also had three fouls and four turnovers in 23 minutes while making only one of six shots. If you look for a facilitator, it’s clear the Irish don’t have someone to rely on from their bench.

Irish freshman guard Jackie Young goes up for a layup during Notre Dame’s 79-49 win over Robert Morris on Friday at Purcell Pavilion.Daniel O'Boyle
Irish freshman guard Jackie Young goes up for a layup during Notre Dame’s 79-49 win over Robert Morris on Friday at Purcell Pavilion.

When Allen sat with two fouls in the second quarter, sophomore guard Ali Patberg took over at the point, and the difference between the two was clear. Notre Dame still does not have a capable replacement for Allen on the bench.

Among the forwards, Boley can stretch the floor and junior Kristina Nelson offers a strong presence in the post, but without Westbeld’s versatility, the team can be too dependent on Turner in the frontcourt.

It’s hard to blame the bench players for their lack of impact. Johnson and Patberg have missed significant time with injury and illness this year, and Nelson missed time at the end of the regular season and the start of the ACC tournament. If all of Notre Dame’s players had been fully healthy all season, maybe it would be a different story. But as it stands, bench injuries may be the reason why the Irish might not be ready to go toe-to-toe with the best of the best for 40 minutes.

Still, with those three — Patberg, Johnson and Nelson — out or limited, Notre Dame still played some of its best basketball of the season, closing out the regular season with a 79-61 win over Florida State before winning the ACC tournament. As it is, the starters look ready for a title run, but the bench looks rusty at the most important point in the season.

If all goes as expected, the Irish will play Stanford in Lexington, Kentucky, next week. The last time the two teams met in that same location, Allen got in early foul trouble on the way to an Irish defeat. It wasn’t the only reason for the loss, but it certainly played a part.

This season, as in the three seasons before, Allen has played almost every minute of every game. One exception was against Louisville during the ACC tournament, when Mabrey took over ball-handling duties while Allen sat after two first-quarter fouls.  The Irish held their own in that period, and letting Mabrey take over point guard duties on offense when Allen is on the bench may help solve the most glaring problem the team faces. But Notre Dame’s depth issues are bigger than that; one change may not be enough.

Everything the Irish do is judged first and foremost in comparison to the one team that has consistently outperformed them this decade: Connecticut has Crystal Dangerfield and Natalie Butler coming off the bench. As it stands, the team that was supposed to be the deepest Muffet McGraw has ever had doesn’t match up.

And that will need to change quickly if the Irish want to beat the Huskies — or whoever else might stand in their way — at the end of the year.

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

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel