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ND Women’s Basketball

Balanced offensive performance helps energize Notre Dame defense against Iowa

| Friday, November 30, 2018

Defending its unanimous No. 1 ranking, Notre Dame has begun the season undefeated, continuing its regular-season winning streak that spans all the way back to Jan. 11. However, if there is anything to be held against this team, it is its defense.

Head coach Muffet McGraw has been outspoken about the defensive struggles. While it may be a big flaw, Notre Dame has every weapon imaginable at the offensive end of the court to compensate. The Irish are highly ranked in multiple statistical categories, including free throws made and attempted (13th nationally in both categories), and field goal percentage (10th  nationally). But the most representative stat of this team is its 88.8 scoring average, which is good for ninth nationally.  

When the defense has struggled to get stops, the offense has been there to lean on. It helps when you have the fourth leading scorer nationally (25.3 points per game) and reigning Final Four MVP in senior guard Arike Ogunbowale. Ogunbowale’s shooting and finishing ability, penchant for drawing fouls and reliable ball handling skills make her a matchup nightmare on or off the ball.

Ogunbowale is not the only stellar figure in the backcourt, however, as junior guard Jackie Young averages 17.9 points and is particularly dangerous on the fast break, along with senior Marina Mabrey, who is a verified 3-point shooting threat.  

Mabrey’s presence is especially beneficial now, as her early absence due to injury contributed to only a 27 percent conversion rate from behind the arc. Her threat to shoot also allows for more opportunities inside.

“[Mabrey] really makes the defense spread out,” graduate student forward Brianna Turner said.

“They can’t just back off her, because of course she’s such a great shooter, and we also got Arike and Jackie on the outside too.”

With the excellent guard play from the Irish this season, an often-overshadowed component of the offensive success is the front-court tandem of Turner and senior forward Jessica Shepard.  

Shepard was an invaluable piece of Notre Dame’s success last year, especially down the stretch. She was tasked with matching up against Mississippi State’s 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan in the national championship, and that defense played a pivotal role in the victory. Shepard is currently averaging 17 points and a team-leading 10.7 rebounds per contest.

Turner has already proven to be a force early in the season, having sat out the entirety of last season, rehabilitating a torn ACL. She is currently second in rebounding at just over 8.7 per game, and leads the team in blocks with 11 on the year.

The tandem of Shepard and Turner has been unstoppable in the paint for the Irish. They anchor an Irish that rebounds nearly half of all its misses, and controls over three-quarters of its opponents’ misses. It makes it much easier to put up points when the offense gets two, three or even four chances on their end and prevents the opponent from getting any extra. Not to mention that the offensive rebounds lead to easy close-range putbacks.

The bigs are not the only ones who contribute to rebounding though, as Young and Ogunbowale provide 7.1 and 5.3 boards per game, respectively.

The only issue with this offensive prowess is that it is currently limited to the starters. The Irish have had four players score in double figures five times this season. The absence of Mabrey’s shooting ability was evident, and if the team were to have to rely more on bench production because of injury or an off-night, it could spell trouble.

“I think there’s such a gap between our starters and our bench right now,” said McGraw. “We just need somebody to come along. I was hoping freshman guard Katlyn [Gilbert] was going to be that one, but now she’s sidelined for a little bit. So it’ll be a matter of the upperclassmen really instilling confidence in these freshmen.”

After returning four starters from a championship team with more ACL tears than losses, there’s surely plenty of confidence to go around.

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