In the first of an arduous seven-game road trip, the Irish improved to 2-0 with a 78-65 win at Western Kentucky on Tuesday night in Bowling Green, Ky. The 1-2 Hilltoppers had already upset No. 16 Missouri to open their season.
About two weeks ago, popular opinion held that the Irish would have to rely almost exclusively on their perimeter game and be primarily a three-point shooting team. However, two relatively unforeseen events occurred since then.
First, two-time 6-4 All-Big Ten forward Jessica Shepard received her waiver from the NCAA to be eligible this season after transferring from Nebraska. Second, relatively under-the-radar 6-3 freshman Mikayla Vaughn has emerged as a significant force off the bench.
So while Notre Dame shot only 4 of 22 from three-point range against Western Kentucky — including 2 of 17 by star junior guards Marina Mabrey (1 of 9) and Arike Ogunbowale (1 of 8) — Shepard and Vaughn took over in the paint.
Shepard posted her second double-double (19 points, 12 rebounds) in as many contests, and tallied 11 points when the Irish finished the first quarter with a 17-14 lead.
Then, in only 16 minutes off the bench, Vaughn converted 8 of 9 from the floor while finishing with 17 points and seven rebounds. Five of her rebounds came on offense (seven of Shepard’s caroms came on that side, too), resulting in put-backs and second-chance points for the rookie whom head coach Muffet McGraw already has referred to as "The Energizer Bunny."
Shepard scored 15 of her points in the first half, while Vaughn amassed 15 in the second half. They were instrumental in Notre Dame tallying 50 points in the paint compared to 32 for the Hilltoppers.
Western Kentucky’s forte, meanwhile, was three-point shooting, where it was ranked 12th nationally with 11.0 treys per game. Against the Irish they were only 3 of 19 for a .158 percentage.
That's not to say the perimeter didn't contribute to Notre Dame’s victory. Ogunbowale finished with a team high 21 points, converting 8 of 13 attempts inside the arc. Sophomore Jackie Young provided another strong all-around game with 12 points, nine rebounds (five on offense), two blocks and two assists. Graduate point guard Lili Thompson made a couple of three-pointers in the fourth quarter to keep Western Kentucky at bay and to complement her seven assists.
Still, what was expected to be overwhelmingly a perimeter identity a few weeks ago has evolved into a far more balanced inside-outside look that should keep the Irish as a bona fide Final Four candidate.
Next up for the Irish is a challenge at No. 18 Oregon State Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. ET) on the Pac-12 Network.