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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish prepare for battle in the paint with Bears in national championship

| Saturday, April 6, 2019

TAMPA, Fla. — After two semifinal games characterized by lead changes and sporadic runs, only the most elite remain: defending champion Notre Dame and top-ranked Baylor.

Although the matchup was predicted to be the final clash of the year, it is unparalleled; Notre Dame and Baylor have exceptionally similar squads this year, each routing several quality opponents among the race to the final game and finally posting impressive wins against the two other best teams in college women’s basketball in the semifinal games. And with some of the most highly-touted names in the game, Notre Dame (35-3, 14-2 ACC) and Baylor (36-1, 18-0 Big 12) will both have their hands full.

Anna Mason | The Observer
Irish senior forward Jessica Shepard shoots over her defender during Notre Dame’s 81-76 win over UConn in the Final Four at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. on Friday.

Irrefutably, the biggest battle of the game will take place in the post, where the Irish will face their biggest challenge of the season. With forwards graduate student Brianna Turner and senior Jessica Shepard in the inside, Notre Dame has not had trouble posting up their opponents down low, tossing the ball in for quick and easy buckets. But Baylor has two herculean post presences of its own in junior forward Lauren Cox and senior center Kalani Brown. Like Shepard and Turner, Cox and Brown can pull down boards and nab high passes, slotting in shots through the defenders over whom they tower.

Shepard and Turner are posting immense numbers from the field, sitting at field-goal percentages of 59.9 and 64.0, respectively. They are Notre Dame’s top two rebounders, amassing 674 boards between them over the course of the season to account for 40% of the team’s rebounds.

For the Bears, the story on the inside is almost identical. Cox and Brown are far and away the team’s best rebounders, nabbing 309 and 290 boards each — more than 100 above the next highest rebounder on their team, freshman forward NaLyssa Smith who has 187 on the year. The pair also lead Baylor in scoring, with Brown averaging 15.7 points per game and Cox averaging 13.2.

Head coach Muffet McGraw acknowledged the problems that the Bears’ post presence will present for the Irish.

“This is the first time we’ve played a team that has two outstanding post players,” McGraw said. “We’ve generally thought we had abnormal advantage in the post. That would be our game plan, to go inside. We do not feel that way [this game]. They have terrific players inside with Lauren Cox and Kalani [Brown].”

McGraw went on to acknowledge the parallel strengths the powerhouse forwards provide for each team.

“[Cox is] kind of similar to [Shepard] in the way she’s got over 130 or 140 assists,” she said. “She’s a great facilitator at the high post, make the high post jumper, shoot 3s. Two great shot-blockers in the back. Defensively, they’re really kind of an intimidating presence inside.”

Both Shepard and Turner recognized the importance of taking care of business in the posts.

“We have to watch out for [Brown] and [Cox],” Turner said. “So, coach is going to plan out a good scout report for Sunday and we will be all set. We also have to make sure we box out.”

Shepard echoed Turner’s sentiments on the importance of establishing and sticking with a game plan. To defend the two, Shepard said she and her team would do “whatever the coaches come up for us.”

“We’ll watch a lot of games, a lot of film and they’ll come up with the best game plan for us to play defense,” Shepard said.

And Notre Dame won’t just be defending the post Sunday — it will be defending its national title too. But the landscape is a little different this year than last, as the Irish were expected to reach the finals again this season after being the underdog champs last year.

“This year is a different mindset,” McGraw said. “It was more of a business trip. I think we came in kind of expecting that we should get here, then we got here. I think being able to focus and understand why we were here, not just happy to be here. This year we wanted to win.”

Junior guard Jackie Young agreed on the importance of a matter-of-fact mentality going into the game.

“Like we’ve been doing all season, just taking care of business,” Young said. “One game at a time, not looking too far ahead. And we know we have one game left and this is what we’ve worked for all season.”

In the final game of the season, Notre Dame will look to achieve what has been its ultimate goal since winning last years’ tournament — a repeat.

“I don’t know anything about winning back-to-back,” McGraw said. “This is the first try for us. Hopefully we’ll be able to get it done.”

Tipoff between the Irish and the Bears is scheduled for 6 p.m Sunday.

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