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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish look to continue winning ways at Virginia

| Friday, January 24, 2020

After a brutal four-game losing streak during the bulk of January, Notre Dame (7-12, 2-5 ACC) will look to build off last Sunday’s 76-53 rout of Miami when the team travels to Charlottesville to take on Virginia (7-11, 2-5 ACC) this Sunday.

Though both teams currently sit near the basement of the ACC standings, Sunday’s game comes off perhaps Notre Dame’s best performance of the season and gives the Irish the opportunity to go above .500 on the road this season.

The relief was palpable after the Irish picked up their first win over a team with a winning record in over a month-and-a-half against Miami. Head coach Muffet McGraw, whose emotional press-conference following the 34-point home loss to NC State made national headlines, admitted postgame, “we feel like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders.”

Kendra Osinski | The Observer

Notre Dame graduate student guard Marta Sniezek backs down a defender on the block during Notre Dame’s 75-67 loss to Minnesota on Dec. 4.

The result was a massive boost of confidence to the talented but young group desperate to avoid becoming the first Irish team since 1991-1992 to finish the season with a losing record. 

“We’ve never seen this,” McGraw said. “We’ve seen glimpses. This is finally a game where we can feel good about the way we played, the way we executed, the way we defended, the way we did everything.”

Against Miami, the Irish seemed to exorcise many of the demons that have plagued them all season, especially when they went on a 20-0 run at the start of the second half. Third quarters have been notoriously difficult for Notre Dame this season, and when asked about how the Irish reversed the trend, star freshman forward Sam Brunelle pointed to better work on the glass. 

“A lot of it’s rebounding, boxing out, getting boards,” she said. “That’s huge for us.”

Notre Dame’s -6.3 rebounding margin has been a problem for the Irish all season, but after out-rebounding the ‘Canes 42-33, the Irish are hoping the resurgence on the glass can continue against the Cavaliers.

Brunelle also gave Irish fans much hope for the next three-and-a-half years with a magnificent offensive display, scoring 20 of her 25 points on 9-11 shooting in the second half.

Brunelle and grad student guard Destinee Walker, who leads the team with 14.1 points per game and had 21 points herself against Miami, combined to shoot 7-10 from three versus the ‘Canes, another encouraging development considering that both have shot below 30% from beyond the arc this season. Notre Dame’s dismal 23.4% three-point percentage ranks 340th out of the 348 Division I programs, but the Irish will be hoping the confident shotmaking from last Sunday stays with them in Charlottesville. 

Notre Dame will certainly have to defend beyond the arc if they hope to stifle the Cavaliers.

Though Virginia shoots a mediocre 28.9% from three as a team, senior guard and leading scorer Jocelyn Willoughby has shot 40% from outside, while fellow guards Dominique Toussaint and Shemera Williams also hit more than 30% of their shots from beyond the arc.

However, the scoring for the Cavaliers, who will most likely be coming off a three-game losing streak after a brutal trip to No. 5 Louisville Thursday night, is noticeably top-heavy. Only seniors Willoughby and Toussaint average double figures, although Willoughby’s 19.1 points per game will be the best of any player on the floor Sunday afternoon. 

Against the Cavaliers, the Irish will also rely on dependable sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert, whose 12 points against Miami marked the 16th occasion Gilbert put up double figures, a team-high. After the Miami game, McGraw lauded Gilbert’s tenacity.

“She just brings energy,” McGraw said. “She’s fighting, she’s in there for rebounds. She got that big steal for a layup. We’re counting on her.” 

Notre Dame has also been bolstered by the return of junior center Mikayla Vaughn from a knee injury. Against Miami, Vaughn asserted herself inside, putting up 16 points and 8 rebounds in just 24 minutes.

All is not well on the injury front for the Irish, however.

Freshman guard Anaya Peoples was recently lost for the season with a torn right labrum, a huge blow considering she and Brunelle were on pace to become one of the most prolific freshman duos in Notre Dame history. Peoples’ absence only magnifies the importance of grad student point guard Marta Sniezek, who averages less than four points per game but is the primary facilitator for the Irish offense.

Though Sniezek only had one field goal attempt against Miami, both Walker and Brunelle credited much of their success against the ‘Canes to her direction at the point. 

“Marta [Sniezek] has a big job, getting us into our sets,” Walker said. “We’re a new team, and we thought she did a great job. Everyone listened and bought in to it.” 

Sunday’s tip off in Charlottesville is scheduled for 2 p.m and will be available on ACC Network Extra. 

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