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Irish expect difficult matchups in Carter, Hillsman on Saturday

| Saturday, March 24, 2018

You’ve probably heard about the four ACL tears.

As long as the Irish keep winning, the incredible story of a shorthanded Notre Dame team that succeeds against the odds bears repeating.

But Texas A&M has had injury issues of its own which have left the Aggies (26-9, 11-5 SEC) without the kind of depth head coach Gary Blair would have hoped for.

And Blair was quick to remind the media Friday that the year hasn’t been without adversity for his team.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Irish junior guard Arike Ogunbowale drives around a defender during Notre Dame’s 99-81 win over CSUN in the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 16 at Purcell Pavilion.

“People talk about Notre Dame’s four ACLs, but I’ve got four kids out, too, that nobody has ever written a story about,” Blair said. “I have two kids that are out, redshirted the whole year, because of injuries, then I have two McDonald’s All-Americans sitting out because of the one-year transfer. I have four kids out, as well.

“It’s a shame for her four ACLs. That’s just unheard of. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of four in one year. But they’ve overcome it. They’re playing very well.”

So without deep supporting casts on either team, this might be the kind of game decided by its stars. And those stars are among the best in the nation.

Aggies freshman guard Chennedy Carter hasn’t had many opportunities for a signature tournament game or shot. Yet last week against DePaul, she produced just that, scoring 32 of her 37 points against DePaul in the second half, including a game-winning 3-pointer.

Until now?

“She’s a phenomenal player,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “I remember watching her on the USA team. She has really transformed her body. I think she looks terrific. She single-handedly won the DePaul game, great play at the end of the game.

“She’s really hard to guard because she can put it on the floor, get it to the rim, pass, she can score from just about anywhere on the floor. She’s really, really dangerous. I think she’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”

Carter is far from a one-game wonder, however, ranking in the top 10 in the nation in scoring with 22.4 points per game — no other freshman averages more than 18 points.

Sitting just outside the top 20 of that list is Notre Dame’s own star scoring guard: Arike Ogunbowale. On a team that hasn’t had a single scholarship guard on its bench since January, Ogunbowale has been the team’s go-to scorer, leading the team with 20.6 points per game and earning spots on the All-ACC First Team and among the 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy.

“Arike is certainly having a fantastic year, up for a lot of awards,” McGraw said Wednesday. “She’ll probably be an All-American. She is somebody that just means so much to our team.”

But Ogunbowale said she doesn’t see the game as a personal matchup between herself and Carter.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a matchup with me and Chennedy,” Ogunbowale said during Friday’s media availability. “It’s Texas A&M versus Notre Dame. We have to play team basketball and they have to play team basketball. And just the best team wins.”

Blair, meanwhile, thought the most interesting individual matchup of the game may be in the frontcourt instead. Junior forward Shepard averages 15.6 points per game for the Irish on a field goal percentage of .571 and has been the key to Notre Dame’s inside game all season.

“She’s been amazing,” McGraw said. “For somebody playing in their first NCAA tournament, I couldn’t be happier. She’s been aggressive, looking for her shot, looking for the ball. She’s kind of been content to kind of sit back and do a little bit of whatever we needed and now she’s kind of taking over. She’s a force inside. She’s really, really working hard at both ends.”

But facing senior center Khaalia Hillsman, Shepard will have to find a way to score against a rim protector with 53 blocks on the season, while attempting to stop one of the most efficient scorers in the country  — Hillsman’s 60.4 field goal percentage ranks her 16th in the nation — at the other.

“Two keys: Shepard and Hillsman, both of them need to stay out of foul trouble,” Blair said. “There’s not anybody in the SEC that’s like Shepard. I can go from past experiences. My last year at Arkansas, Stacy Stephens who played for Texas, they went on to the Final Four, was very similar. Shepard is not the perimeter post player that we faced at DePaul or Drake, so it’s a different set. She’s going to take you to the low block. They run a great 1-4 high set that they isolate her down low. She’s a very good passer. She’s a complete package.”

Yet Blair said any player on his team is capable of stepping up against the Irish.

“I have a team of stars, OK?” Blair said. “It’s a frigging galaxy out there. I don’t know which one is going to shine the most that day, will it be Jas Lumpkin’s defense and rebounding or Hillsman ruling the paint?

“I’ve got the best freshman in the country. But I’ve got a pretty damn good team that goes along with her.”

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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.

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