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ND Women’s Basketball

After rocky start, Irish top Volunteers on the road

| Friday, January 25, 2019

In an evening with no shortage of talent, experience won out as No. 1 Notre Dame topped Tennessee on the road 77-62.

The matchup had a lot at stake for both teams. For the Volunteers (12-7, 1-5 SEC) — who entered the game on a five-game losing streak and were in desperate need of a turnaround — the historic program was hoping to earn a marquee win. Meanwhile, Notre Dame was looking to compete as it did last January, when Tennessee built a 23-point lead before the Irish (19-1, 6-0 ACC) mounted a comeback that ended with a 14-point win and arguably marked the turning point in their quest for the national championship. Although the Irish had won seven of the last eight matchups, Thursday’s game still had historical implications for the sport, with the Volunteers owning the series 21-7 and having only ever lost twice at home before to the Irish.

Annie Smierciak | The Observer

Irish junior guard Arike Ogunbowale steps back for a shot during Notre Dame’s 89-71 loss to UConn on Dec. 2 at Purcell Pavilion.

Despite Notre Dame trying to set the tone with an early bucket in the lane by graduate student forward Brianna Turner, the Volunteers managed to build a quick response to gain the lead and proceeded to hold onto it with a 7-0 run to close the opening quarter up 17-14.

The slow start for the nation’s top-ranked team continued when the Irish returned to the court for the second quarter, with Notre Dame unable to connect on shots and Tennessee reaching their largest lead of the night — eight — with over seven minutes left in the quarter. However, two back-to-back layups by junior guard Jackie Young, followed by two Turner layups, gave the Irish their first lead since that opening possession. But the Volunteers proved they weren’t ones to roll over quite yet with a six-point run of their own.

“They’re a dangerous team, they are young … they’re growing and learning, and they’re not quitting,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said on the Volunteers.

As the half wound to a close, senior forward Jessica Shepard connected on a shot down low with seconds left to keep the Irish within three heading back into the locker room.

After 20 minutes of play, McGraw was especially displeased by the team’s rebounding efforts after having been bested by Tennessee 18-23 in the first half. She credited the Volunteer’s aggressiveness for their activity on the boards.

“We need to get the rebounds in order to run because we don’t get a lot of steals so we’ve got to get it off the backboard,” McGraw said. “And normally [Shepard] and [Turner] are so good at it … we weren’t doing our job in the first half.”

McGraw pointed out that the Irish weren’t able to flow as they wanted to on offense, and needed to get back to what worked in order to generate a successful second-half offense.

“I thought offensively we just came out and were way out of rhythm,” McGraw said on the first half. “We were trying to get the ball into the post and we just settled for jumpers, and once we started getting it into the post, I thought the high-low game was really effective. In the second half, I thought we moved the ball a little bit better.”

Led by Young, the Irish took note of McGraw’s adjustments in the second half. After having a respectable four-rebound, three-assist and eight-point first half, the junior broke out in the second half, contributing eight rebounds, eight points and seven assists — along with no turnovers — to record her first career triple double, and only the seventh all-time in program history, the first since former Irish guard Lindsay Allen recorded the feat versus Chattanooga on Dec. 27, 2016.

“She’s kind of the glue that keeps us together.” McGraw said on the junior. “She’s someone that we can count on to do absolutely everything. She can guard the other team’s best player, she’s going to be contending for leading rebounder, she’s going to lead the team in assists, she can score, she can get to the free throw line. We like the ball in her hand … She’s not as flashy as some of our other players, she doesn’t get as much credit as I think she deserves.”

In the third quarter, senior guard Arike Ogunbowale put on an offensive show, tallying six points in the first three minutes to bring the Irish back within one. Shepard once again added two points in from the block, before Ogunbowale and classmate Marina Mabrey sunk two layups in transition. Mabrey had a relatively quiet night with only five points, but recorded four rebounds and four assists in her 29 minutes of play. With both teams going back-and-forth over the next few minutes, Notre Dame managed to separate with an 11-2 run to close the quarter. Of those 11 points, all but two of them were from the duo of Ogunbowale and Shepard.

In the final 10-minute period, the youth and inexperience of Tennessee proved detrimental, as the Irish poured in eight unanswered points to stretch their lead to 17. The Volunteers managed to close the gap slightly, thanks in large part to four points by freshman Zaay Green. The guard was a force in the first two quarters, recording 15 points, five rebounds and four assists before halftime. However, she struggled down the stretch, with all four of her second-half points coming down the stretch when Notre Dame had already established a sizable lead.

McGraw said her strategy entering the game was to contain Green, allowing her the 3-point line but cutting off the lane, a game plan Notre Dame’s guards struggled to implement before the break.

With the clock winding down, another 8-0 run by the Irish gave them the necessary lead, despite a 10-4 run by the Volunteers with just over a minute remaining to conclude the game. Ogunbowale finished with a game-high 28 points — her 13th 20-plus scoring performance of the season — and commented on the toughness of the game between two prestigious programs.

“Even though they’re young they’ve got a lot of athletes … they play hard and when people play hard they’re always going to score, always going to play well,” Ogunbowale said. “That definitely was a challenge for us.”

The Irish will proceed to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for the second of their three-game road tour, taking on the Tar Heels on Sunday as they near the midpoint of the ACC regular season.

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