No. 5 Notre Dame Regrouping After Stunning Defeat
Following a 78-73 upset loss at North Carolina on Sunday afternoon, reigning national champion and 2019 favorite Notre Dame fell from its top perch to No. 5 in the country.
Basketball practice on Wednesday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion was relatively sedate for the 19-2 Fighting Irish (6-1 in ACC play) from the aftereffect tremors of the defeat as they prepared to hit the road for the third straight outing, at vastly improved Clemson (14-6 overall, 5-2 in ACC) tonight.
The Irish won at Tennessee last Thursday (77-62) prior to the defeat in Chapel Hill. They returned to historical levels of cold weather in northern Indiana, but head coach Muffet McGraw said it’s the fire — and execution — on the court that is going to matter.
“I’m hoping we see it tomorrow,” said McGraw following Wednesday’s session of the team’s intensity level. “We haven’t seen it yet … we’re really fragile right now. I think we see our weaknesses a little bit more than our strengths, and I think we need to get our confidence back.”
Junior wing/guard Jackie Young, who sat out the North Carolina loss with a right ankle sprain, participated for the first time since last Saturday (when she was injured) in practice and partook in a few of the drills. She was the last to leave the court while while working on some shooting. She remains questionable for the Clemson game, with McGraw declaring it will be a game-time decision based on how well she can cut and move laterally.
“If it’s my decision, I’m playing,” said Young, who said the ankle has improved significantly since earlier in the week. “We just really need to get defensive stops and rebounds, so hopefully I can bring that to the table.”
The health of Young is not what concerns McGraw the most at the moment.
“As the No. 1 team in the country, you should be able to beat an unranked team without one of your starters, so I was really disappointed nobody else really stepped up,” McGraw reflected on the loss to the Tar Heels. “We had four really good players on the floor all the time, and they needed to do more.
“I think that we understand that we can’t turn the ball over, we’ve got to be able to defend, we’ve got to be able to figure out who’s got the hot hand. We had a lot of mismatches — we weren’t able to take advantage of them.”
Senior guard Marina Mabrey admitted the veteran Irish starting unit needs to be more accountable of themselves.
“We just want to get back out there and show what we can really do and play better,” Mabrey said. “Credit to [North Carolina], they played a great game. They came ready to play and we didn’t. The leaders on the team didn’t really lead that well.”
For McGraw, the hope is the team can concentrate on still winning the ACC rather than looking too far ahead. For Mabrey, the loss at North Carolina was not as bad as losing by 33 at Louisville last January — after having already seen four teammates have their seasons ended with torn ACLs.
“I don’t think we were as low as we were last year — we were at a really low point,” Mabrey said. “We just really need to come back and get better. Maybe this will be a turning point of the season.”
Notre Dame committed 20 turnovers at North Carolina, continuing a recent trend of not protecting the basketball as well as it should.
Among 15 teams in the ACC, Notre Dame remains No. 1 in assist-to-turnover ratio — but is only No. 7 in turnover margin, highlighting its issues with the rash of errors. The matchup with Clemson will provide an excellent test in that area because the Tigers rank fifth in the country in steals with 246 in 20 games, or 12.3 per contest.
The absence of Young was conspicuous versus North Carolina because she often plays the point in half-court sets. She leads the team in assists with 95 and has only 40 turnovers — and is No. 1 in the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio at plus-2.4. Mabrey, who was the emergency point guard the last three months of the 2018 campaign, is No. 6 in the league in assists (68) to turnovers (36) at plus-1.9.
Freshman Jordan Nixon played 33 minutes at the point against North Carolina and had only one turnover, which could result in more action for her again if Young is absent.
“Just find the open man,” said Mabrey of where the Irish need to improve. “I think sometimes we try to force it in too much, force passes that aren’t there. And then making the right pass — throwing overhead passes when they should be a bounce pass, just little things like that that all come back to focus.”
The point of emphasis this week in practice has been to be strong and smart with the ball, but McGraw contends it’s not like that has been previously ignored. At some point it comes down to commitment, concentration and effort, just like defense.
“It’s really frustrating,” McGraw said. “We’ve been working on some of these things since the summer, some of them for four years. Just watching it on film, it’s almost pointless to say, ‘This is what we’re trying to do.’ You’ve just got to go do it. It’s really just about them figuring it out.”
The Tigers have been the bottom feeders of the league for nearly 15 years, last posting a winning season in 2004. Over the past five years Clemson was 9-70 in conference play, and 1-15 last year.
This year it is 14-6 and tied for fourth in the league at 5-2, pulling off back-to-back upsets on the road versus Miami (76-57) and Florida State (57-45). Last Thursday it took unbeaten North Carolina State to the limit at Raleigh before losing, 54-51. First-year head coach Amanda Butler, who had been head coach at Florida for 10 years before getting fired in 2017, is a prime Coach of the Year candidate, especially with the defense the Tigers play.
“Clemson play with a lot of energy, really inspired,” McGraw said. “Play great defense, they trap, they press … That’s a problem the way we turn the ball over.”
Like the Irish, Clemson is spearheaded by veterans, led by 6-2 junior post Kobi Thompson, the team’s top scorer (15.6 points per game) and rebounder (8.1). Grad student Simone Westbrook averages 14.9 points and leads the team in assists (70). Senior Danielle Edwards (13.5 points per game) also is a vital cog.
Two years ago at Clemson, the Tigers took No. 7 Notre Dame to the wall before losing 84-80, with Mabrey scoring 24 of her career high 29 points in the second half .