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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish look to reverse road struggles in critical clash with Pitt

| Monday, February 22, 2021

The difference between 9-3 and 6-6 may seem substantial, but for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, it’s been a matter of a bounce here, a basket there and three painful road losses in a row. The Irish dropped from 6-3 in ACC play to a .500 record with a 78-73 loss to UNC, a 81-69 loss to Syracuse (in which the Irish blew a double-digit lead) and a tough 71-65 road loss to a top-five Louisville team. Three brutal losses, which, after a two-week layoff due to COVID-19, represents the difference between third place in the conference and Notre Dame’s current eighth-place ranking. 

Notre Dame hits the road again Tuesday, as they take on Pitt for their fourth consecutive road game. It’s going to be tough going for head coach Niele Ivey’s squad, which is 2-6 on the road; that being said, only two of those losses came by more than six points, one of which was the very winnable Syracuse game. Pitt is not a particularly formidable opponent, as they sport a measly 3-9 conference record and they are just 3-6 playing on their own court.

However, Pitt has victimized Clemson twice and Boston College once for their three ACC victories — a pair of teams which Notre Dame is 1-2 against on the year. Right now, every game is vitally important for the Irish, as various bracketology projections have them sitting just outside the field of 64. An ACC Championship auto-bid is an unlikely path to the tournament, with top-five squads Louisville and NC State imposing their will at the top of the conference, so a strong finish to the season is a necessity for Notre Dame.

Photo courtesy of Jared Anderson
Irish junior guard Dara Mabrey looks to pass during Notre Dame’s 71-65 loss against Louisville on Feb. 7 at the KFC Yum! Center.

That strong finish has to start with a win on Tuesday, as there is no doubt this is an extremely winnable road game. That questionable record away from Purcell Pavilion is a knock against the Irish, and dropping to 2-7 on the road against a less-than-impressive Panthers’ team may end Notre Dame’s tournament hopes.

Against Pitt, the key to walking away with a victory likely starts in the paint. Neither of these teams live and die by the three-pointer, which is generally good news for an Irish squad giving up 8.7 triples per contest. That being said, Notre Dame has also struggled at times with rebounding and getting shots blocked, both of which play to Pitt’s strengths. While the Panthers aren’t a tremendous shooting team, second-chance points are the bane of any defense’s existence. Notre Dame will need to be strong in the paint.

As mentioned above, Notre Dame has also had struggles getting shots off, as they’ve seen 4.3 attempts blocked per game, the same rate at which Pitt has notched blocks of their own. Finding quality shot opportunities is going to be important, particularly if the Irish are having a tough time on the glass, as they’ll need shots to be dropping early.

These keys for Notre Dame will center around stopping Pitt sophomore forward Amber Brown, who averages 6.4 rebounds per contest, and 6’4” sophomore center Rita Igbokwe. Foul trouble, including two games in which she fouled out, has limited Igbokwe to 19 minutes a game, but even with that, she has made her presence felt, grabbing 100 rebounds and blocking 25 shots. When playing 27+ minutes in a game, Igbokwe averages 7.5 rebounds and 2.75 blocks. The Irish will want to get Igbokwe into foul trouble early and limit her impact in this one.

After the inside trouble, Notre Dame cannot afford to lose track of junior guard Jayla Everett, who has eclipsed 20 points on five occasions this year. Everett started off the year red-hot from behind the arc, hitting on 21 of her first 41 attempts, but she’s shooting just 29% from three-point land since. However, she will generally launch 8 to 10 triples per game, and the Irish have struggled at times to defend that, so contesting shots and not letting Everett get hot also represents a defensive X-factor.

Offensively, Notre Dame will continue to look to true freshman forward Maddy Westbeld (14.8 points per game) to lead the charge, while junior guard Dara Mabrey (12.3 points per game) and reserve graduate student guard Destinee Walker (12.2) will be key players for the Irish as well.

However, the biggest place the Irish need to thrive may very well be at the free throw lines, as Pitt has allowed opponents 16 trips to the charity stripe per game. As a team, the Irish shoot 72% from the line, and Mabrey and Walker both shoot the free throw at over 85%. Notre Dame’s dual-desire will be to get Igbokwe in foul trouble and to get their best free throw shooters a plethora of opportunities at the line, so those should work hand in hand for the Irish.

Notre Dame tips off against Pitt — one of three remaining regular season games — at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network.

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