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ND Women’s Basketball

Notre Dame focuses in on top-15 matchup against NC State

| Monday, February 18, 2019

Throughout the concourse of Purcell Pavilion one word keeps surfacing: legacy. For Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw and her defending national championship team, that goes well beyond the banners hanging in the rafters. It’s relevant when considering the team’s recent two conference losses in two weeks — a first for the program — and senior guard Arike Ogunbowale’s point total quickly nearing that of former Irish two-time All-American guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. However, despite these program-defining moments, McGraw and her team are taking the season one game at a time, with a Monday road matchup against No. 12 North Carolina State on the horizon.

After dropping games against North Carolina and Miami on Jan. 27 and Feb. 7, respectively, Notre Dame (23-3, 10-2 ACC) understands the importance of preparing for every opponent seriously, especially considering the impressive resume the Wolfpack (22-2, 9-2) have built this season — most recently, a four-point win over No. 16 Syracuse on the road.

Anna Mason | The Observer

Irish senior forward Jessica Shepard guards her opponent during Notre Dame’s 105-71 win over Iowa on Nov. 29 at Purcell Pavilion.

“It doesn’t really surprise us because we lost to them my sophomore year,” Ogunbowale said. “We know they’re a great team. They have good balance, good posts, good shooters. It’s definitely going to be a tough matchup.”

That 70-62 win by the Wolfpack back in December 2016 in Raleigh pitted a well-balanced NC State offense against a hot-handed Marina Mabrey, who led all scorers with 22 points in the loss. Two years later, NC State still appears to be a threat, with the added contribution of graduate student Kiara Leslie, who transferred from Maryland this season. The 6-foot guard is currently averaging 15.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

McGraw said she expects Leslie, along with the rest of a guard corps known for its impressive shooting percentages, to be a challenge for her team.

“They can stretch the defense a little. It’s going to make it hard for us to play zone,” McGraw said.

This top-15 matchup comes at a time when Notre Dame is desperately seeking to reestablish itself as a team deserving of a No. 1-seed come March, following a recent dip that resulted in two ACC losses.

McGraw said this brief slump came down to one thing — a loss of identity.

“That’s two losses in two weeks,” McGraw said. “We weren’t really playing our game. We had to get back to our principles.”

She followed up by adding that both of those loses came down to not making stops when needed, a problem the Irish will seek to address against the Wolfpack.

“You can’t just come out and play defense on game day — you’ve got to practice it,” McGraw said.

The matchup is expected to include a firepower Notre Dame offense, which currently ranks third nationally in points averaged with 87.2, and a stifling Wolfpack defense, which is currently sitting at 35th at 57.1 points allowed.

“They’re smart. They play good position defense; their rotation is really good,” McGraw said. “They’re aggressive. They’re just a team that enjoys playing defense. They love defense and that really helps.”

Beyond the implications it has on the state of the team, the game also has significance to the conference standings, with only four games remaining in the regular season.

“This game is critical, we’re tied for second,” McGraw said. “We’ve got an outside shot, if Louisville loses, to come in first.”

With three losses on record, Notre Dame’s title-defending team has proven it’s not invincible, a quality which Ogunbowale said hasn’t gone unnoticed by opponents.

“Teams aren’t just going to back down to us just because of who we are,” Ogunbowale said. “We’re definitely going to have to come ready to play every game.”

In the background of the fight to reclaim the top-ACC spot lies Diggins-Smith’s scoring record, just 33 points ahead of Ogumbowale.

“That’s just a really cool thing, especially all the great players that have come to this school,” Ogumbowale said. “To be able to be at the top and be remembered for that, that’s pretty cool.”

Notre Dame will look to earn one of its biggest wins of the season at the Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Monday. Tipoff against the Wolfpack is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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