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Notre Dame Women's Basketball Experiencing A Lost Season

There were the sounds of a concession speech from Notre Dame’s Naismith Hall of Fame head coach Muffet McGraw following Notre Dame’s 71-55 defeat to Clemson on Sunday afternoon to open the ACC season.

Not only did the demoralizing setback to a 4-8 unit that had lost at home to North Carolina A&T the previous game drop Notre Dame to 5-8, it ended a 58-game winning streak at home against conference opponents that dated back to 2012.

Rock bottom seemed like it was several flights up.

The return of junior center Mikky Vaughn provides a boost to what has been a trying season.
The return of junior center Mikky Vaughn provides a boost to what has been a trying season. (Mike Miller)

The Irish fell behind by as much as 28 points (53-25 in the third quarter) and finished a woeful 20 of 64 from the field (31.3 percent). They also committed 20 turnovers against the Tigers’ zone that had them flummoxed.

Notre Dame didn’t convert a three-pointer until the fourth quarter and finished 2 of 17 behind the arc (11.8 percent).

The inability to play a full lineup again while trying to rotate six players who originally enrolled on scholarship exacerbated the immense frustration.

Just when junior center Mikky Vaughn returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a knee sprain in the Nov. 5 opener at Fordham, graduate student and point guard Marta Sniezek, the glue of the team on offense and defense, was sidelined with plantar fasciitis.

“I think it’s going to take another year,” admitted McGraw in what came across as a concession speech of a lost 2019-20 season while looking ahead to enrolling five scholarship players who signed for the 2020-21 campaign.

“We’ve got to have a go-to player and we don’t have one. … We just stood around and shot threes and didn’t make any of them. Every time out we talked about (in the huddle), ‘We’re not shooting threes, we’re trying to run the offense’ — we forgot the offense.

“We were in the wrong place the entire first half, we were paralyzed and couldn’t run the offense … it’s really getting discouraging that we’re just not making that next step.

“We’re going to struggle through the rest of the year.”

The graduation of four senior starters, the early departure of junior Jackie Young to the WNBA as the No. 1 overall pick, the transfer of four players since 2017, a medical setback to sophomore guard Abby Prohaska (pulmonary embolism) and injuries this year to Vaughn and now Sniezek have ravaged the roster.

Still, McGraw said the absence of Sniezek is not what hurt the Irish most against the Tigers.

“It would have been good to have an extra sub because a couple of people didn’t come to play … Clemson just played really well,” McGraw said. “We hung our heads and didn’t do anything else. Instead of saying ‘I can rebound or I can defend or I can get assists’ we just hung our heads. And that’s incredibly disappointing and unacceptable.

“Normally we have a little bit of fight. We didn’t have the fight today … We got the ball and we panicked. We didn’t throw it where it was supposed to go. And they were aggressive and big.”

It had been McGraw’s opinion that to have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament this year, the Irish needed to finish at least 12-6 in the ACC, and win a game in the ACC Tournament to get to 18-14 overall.

The devastating loss to Clemson, experiencing its own struggles, made such aspirations right now look like a pipe dream.

THE RETURN OF VAUGHN


As the Irish prepare to embark on the remaining 17 games in the ACC, Vaughn’s presence against Clemson was at least uplifting.

In 23 minutes of action the 6-3 and lone true post player on the roster converted 4 of 5 shots from the field and recorded four steals, but was disappointed she could add only two rebounds.

“She did a nice job defensively,” McGraw said. “She’s going to work, she’s going to talk and she’s going to lead — all the things that we need. She gave a tremendous effort today.”

With Vaughn in the post, 6-2 freshman Sam Brunelle can now be freed up more to roam the three-point area, where the Irish desperately need some production, instead of having to be situated down low.

Ideally, the rotation would be rounded out with freshman Anaya Peoples and sophomore Katlyn Gilbert along the wings, Sniezek running the point and grad student Destinee Walker — who has had extremely hot and cold spells — helping off the bench with sophomore Danielle Cosgrove and senior Kaitlin Cole, a former walk-on.

“I didn’t play nearly as well as I wanted to," Vaughn said. "I didn’t get as many rebounds as I know I needed to. I get three more rebounds, we’re not down by as many points.

“I know it’s the first game back, but no one else cares … I didn’t feel nearly out of shape as I thought I was going to feel.”

The Irish were 70-7 in Vaughn’s first two seasons, with a national title and a national runner-up finish. Thus, a 5-8 start to this season has hit home a little more for her.

“I’m tired of losing,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve lost this many games ever. A lot of us can attest to that. I’m not quite sure what it’s going to take for us to move forward.

“I think my being back on the court helps, but I have to help more, I have to figure out a way to do more in every aspect of the game.”

THREE-POINT PLAY


1. Crisis In Confidence

The loss to Clemson at home revealed a shaken basketball team that truly has plummeted from the penthouse suite to a dilapidated shack within months.

A fierce competitor whose accolades have made her a Notre Dame legend, McGraw especially is visibly stunned at just how steep the fall has been. In numerous conferences after defeats she has ripped into her team for its repeated lack of execution.

There’s a point now where she might want and need to back off, because a tightness seems to be setting in overall.

There is a lot of gifted young talent on this roster that can get the program back toward top-10 level in maybe two years, but it will have to be nurtured with some positive reinforcement through some challenging circumstances currently. She cannot afford to lose them mentally or physically.


2. Three-Point Disparity

For all the woes about the lack of an inside game, Notre Dame during its 5-8 start also has converted only 41 three-pointers in 186 attempts (22 percent). The opposition has drained 108 of them at 31 percent.

Even before the 2 of 17 performance against Clemson, among 348 Division 1 teams, Notre Dame ranked 337th in threes made per game and 340th in shooting percentage.

In its last seven defeats, Notre Dame was outscored 198-54 beyond the arc, or an average of about 28-8.

A lack of awareness defensive by the Irish of where the shooters are plagued them through the first two months.


3. Freshmen Reliance

At the turn into the New Year, Notre Dame and the University of Texas San Antonio were the only two teams with two true freshmen who were averaging at least 13 points per game.

Peoples was second in scoring with a 14.5 average and first in rebounding at 8.2 per game. Brunelle was third in scoring with a 13.8 average (31 on 13 of 18 shooting in a loss to No. 16 DePaul) and second to Peoples in rebounding at 6.3 per contest.

Sophomore guard Gilbert, medically redshirted last season to still give her three years of eligibility after this year, is the top scorer with a 15.1 average, and tallied double figures in each of the first 13 contests.

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