ND Women’s Basketball
Irish return to Knoxville, Tennessee, to take on perennial rival
Elizabeth Greason | Thursday, January 24, 2019
The Irish head south on Thursday to defend one of the most important victories of their national championship season: a come-from-behind win over Tennessee on Jan. 18, 2018 after being down by as many as 23 points.
The Volunteers (12-6, 1-5 SEC) dropped out of the top-25 this week after losing their fifth-straight game. However, four of those losses have come by four points or fewer. Because of this, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said the Volunteers are no less of a threat than they are year-in and year-out.
“I think last year when we looked at our Tennessee game, that’s the game that turned our season around, and I think they’re probably feeling the same way right now. For them, what better way to come out of a slump than to beat the No. 1 team in the country,” McGraw said. “They are really in need of a win and we have got to be incredibly focused because the game could easily go either way. When you’re not winning and then all of a sudden things start going your way, everything seems to work, so we’ve got to make sure that we come out and are on our defensive intensity immediately.”
Last year’s comeback against Tennessee game is widely regarded as the game that was a spark-plug for Notre Dame’s season, after the Irish (18-1, 6-0 ACC) dropped a 100-67 contest to Louisville two games prior. It appeared that the Irish were poised to lose big again to the Volunteers, as they were down by 23 points, but fought back and came out on top for a 84-70 win.
“During the game, as we were coming back, they still were scoring and stuff, so it wasn’t a fast comeback. We still were frantic trying to come back,” Irish senior guard Marina Mabrey said. “But once we got it to like eight, I think I was like ‘we’re good. We just need to keep on working, keep on chipping away.’ I was just really happy that we came back and stuff, knowing that our team was still there and we still had that competitive fire.”
In terms of competitive fire, McGraw is expecting to see much of what her team put on display during that game at Purcell Pavilion last season come from Tennessee in Knoxville on Thursday, as this game poses a great opportunity for the Volunteers to turn the tides of their season.
“I think any team is capable of having a big game. Everybody’s got a game in them where everything just goes your way,” she said. “We don’t have those as often as I would like, but you can see it happening. I mean, you saw it happen to us a couple times last year, but I think it can happen at any point.”
McGraw also noted the Volunteers have something to prove after giving up such a big lead to the eventual national champions a year ago.
“They probably didn’t feel as good as we did leaving the gym that day,” she said. “That was just such a huge boost for us and they can play off of that and say that did that to us, we can do it to them. So I think we’ve go to really be on guard.”
One of the most dangerous threats for the Volunteers this season is guard Evina Westbrook. The six-foot sophomore leads Tennessee in scoring, with 108 field goals made this season. She also leads the team in shooting percentage, both from the field and from behind the arc, shooting 45.8 percent and 40.7 percent, respectively. She is averaging 16.8 points per game and leads the team in assists.
“Evina Westbrook is their go-to player right now. She’s somebody we recruited. We really wanted her to come here. She’s a sophomore, she’s their leading scorer, she can do a lot of things,” McGraw said. “She can shoot 3s, she can go to the basket, she can pass. She’s a really, really talented player.”
Beyond Westbrook, McGraw sees a very talented Tennessee team overall.
“They’re very athletic. They can get up and guard, they can rebound, they can do a lot of damage,” McGraw said. “All the games they’ve lost have been by one or two points. They were ranked 10th in the country not too long ago, and just have had a little bit of trouble, so that could change at any moment.”
Mabrey noted that although the Volunteers have had some trouble lately, she is confident the Volunteers will come out strong.
“They’re still a great team, whatever’s going on, whatever’s happened during those games,” she said. “It’s really doesn’t matter because it’s a rival, it’s a big game, they’re going to be ready to play. I expect to see a really good Tennessee team [Thursday].”
McGraw also addressed the offer announced Tuesday for furloughed federal employees. Women’s basketball has teamed up with the Irish men’s basketball and hockey teams to provide free tickets and food vouchers to a number of upcoming games for federal employees affected by the partial government shutdown, now in Day 34 (as of Thursday), and their families. The deal will be honored should the shutdown end prior to the games for which the offer is valid.
“We wanted to do something. We needed to give back in some way. Our fans have been so great to us and I know that our fans would like to do something for them as well, so we’re excited that we’re able to offer some free tickets. Feb. 3 is the first game for tickets. Four tickets, but really as many as they need for their family, we’re going to take care of them,” McGraw said. “We’re going to put them in a great spot, give them some food vouchers, just try to help them. This is all about people, not politics. We really need to help the people in our community. There’s so much more we can do, and I know that everybody in our community wants to do more, they just don’t know how.”
Notre Dame and Tennessee will tip off at Thompson-Boling Arena at 7 p.m. on Thursday.