Brianna Turner

IRISH EXTRA: Defense Paves Way For Irish On Road To Sweet 16

March 23, 2015

Irish NCAA Tournament Central

When DePaul’s Jessica January swished a three-pointer to give the Blue Demons an eight-point lead Sunday night on the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team at 23-15 in NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship second-round action, Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw had seen enough.

DePaul took advantage of the Irish focus on the perimeter to get mismatches inside and take the ball to the hoop. The Blue Demons hit nine of their first 16 shots (56 percent) and were ready to light up the scoreboard.

Switching to a zone for a few possessions, the Irish disrupted DePaul’s rhythm.

Switching to a deny mentality for the rest of the game, the Irish disrupted DePaul’s post-season plans.

Notre Dame’s defense went into lock-down mode and helped the Fighting Irish roll to a 79-67 victory against DePaul at Purcell Pavilion.

No. 1 seed Notre Dame (33-2) advances to regional play Friday at Oklahoma City. DePaul’s season ends at 27-8.

Harassed by Notre Dame’s defense, DePaul managed to hit only 12 of its next 43 shots (28 percent) after it took the 23-15 lead. A DePaul drought of nearly seven minutes helped the Irish put together a 14-point swing and take a 37-31 halftime lead.

Notre Dame pulled away in the second half by shutting down the Blue Demons. DePaul hit a flurry of points in the final minutes after Notre Dame cleared its bench, trimming a 22-point Irish lead to the final 12-point margin of victory, and finished with 25-of-70 shooting (36 percent).

Notre Dame’s defensive effort was impressive considering DePaul entered the game ranked No. 2 in the nation in scoring (86.6 percent). Connecticut leads the nation in scoring at 89.7 percent.

DePaul has scored 90 or more points 15 times this season and has scored 100 or more four times. The Blue Demons were held below 70 points only three times this season before running into the Irish, twice by a slow-down Villanova team, and once by No. 1 Connecticut.

“DePaul is a team that can score 90 points,” McGraw said. “So to hold them below 70, I thought was pretty good defense.

“The change was that they were beating us off the dribble and getting lay-ups to start the game. I thought they got really good shots and they were making all of them. I thought the difference was when we contained the ball a little bit better and then forced them to shoot over us and from the perimeter a little bit more. We went to the zone for a little bit in that stretch, and I think that took them out of their rhythm for maybe a minute.”

According to Irish star Jewell Loyd, defense was always the emphasis heading into the DePaul game.

“Early on, we knew it wasn’t about the scoring,” Loyd said. “We can score. It’s a matter of how we play defense. We knew we had to get stops. DePaul is really good at attacking and kicking it out to shooters. We figured out that’s what they were doing. Once we buckled down on defense, everything came together.”

Loyd said the Irish have embraced a defensive mentality. Posts are comfortable and effective guarding guards. The key to Notre Dame’s defensive success, according to Loyd, is communication.

“I think we’ve grown the most on defense communicating, by far,” Loyd said. “We’re able to say, ‘Switch,’ ‘I got it,’ ‘Stay,’ ‘Help-side,’ ‘I’ve got shooter.’ We weren’t doing that early on. We didn’t know what to say, so we didn’t say it at all. Now we’re saying it multiple times, we know where the shooters are, we recognize where the mismatches are, and we’re communicating that. Every game we’re getting better on defense.”

Madison Cable, a senior guard, said that each season the Irish have to learn to play defense as a unit.

“Learning defense is a gradual process,” Cable said. “Everyone is getting better. It’s not just something freshmen have to learn, everybody, including seniors, juniors, have to learn to play defense with each other. It’s something we stress in practice every day.”

Cable said most players come from high school as prolific scorers, and they have to learn defense at the college level.

“Usually everybody wants to play offense, and defense isn’t the number one thing with people,” Cable said. “But if you want to play at Notre Dame, if you want to succeed, you have to play defense. Everybody gets on board with that and wants to win. If you have a good defensive team, you can win games and you can put together a tournament run. Defense is what advances you to the next round.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent