IRISH EXTRA's John Heisler was embedded with the Notre Dame women's basketball team during last weekend's trip to Boston College and provided an exclusive account of the preparation that went into Notre Dame's 89-56 win over the Eagles.

IRISH EXTRA: Irish Breeze at Boston College

Feb. 9, 2015

It’s the dog days of February, as the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball works its way toward the postseason. There are only six regular-season contests remaining, and this weekend’s assignment takes Muffet McGraw’s crew on the road to meet a 10-12 Boston College squad.

Maybe the most noteworthy challenge for the Irish head coach will be convincing her roster that the Eagles are just dangerous enough to pose a roadblock if the Irish don’t focus. The Notre Dame players are likely to remember that the first meeting between these two teams, exactly four weeks ago, resulted in a 46-point Irish victory that began their current eight-game win streak.

McGraw and her staff would take a similar result this time, yet she knows one of the Eagles’ most recent Atlantic Coast Conference wins was an eye-catching one against a 15th-ranked Duke team that has lost only twice in league play.

The Irish are headed to Conte Forum where they have not lost since 2003.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

9:45 a.m. – On a partly sunny 28-degree day in South Bend, McGraw walks onto the Purcell Pavilion court. She chats briefly with Jewell Loyd, as Brianna Turner and Michaela Mabrey get ready for work at the east basket.

In the next few minutes, the rest of the Irish exit their locker room.

9:50 a.m. – In navy blue warm-up pants and a hazy blue Under Armour zip-up top, McGraw stands on the south sideline near midcourt with her arms folded while strength and conditioning assistant Craig Cheek directs the Irish through a warm-up session. Two minutes later the rest of the Notre Dame assistant coaches appear, and Carol Owens grabs some gum as she chats with Niele Ivey.

9:55 a.m. – McGraw briefly chastises her team for not hitting the floor soon enough to get more shots up pre-practice. “You’ve got to be ready every single day,” she offers. With that, the players are off and running.

This 75-minute workout is mostly about anticipating what Boston College will do at both ends of the floor–and making sure the Irish understand how to handle what comes their way.

There are a variety of three-, four- and five-minute segments. The Irish start with a two-on-two drill, with entry passes coming to the post, and a give and go the usual result.

The starters wear blue practice jerseys, while the defense wears grey. Owens has the scouting assignment for this game, and she and McGraw provide much of the direction.

The blue team goes full court versus a defense that sometimes includes either three, four or five players, with Ivey making those calls from one possession to the next.

10:07 a.m. – McGraw asks for a 2-3 zone from the grey unit, as the Irish post players try to find openings in the middle of the zone.

10:12 a.m. – Now it’s on to a four-minute segment against man-to-man defense.

10:17 a.m. – Assistant coach Beth Cunningham and injured guard Whitney Holloway handle the ball on the wings, as the players take turns working two on two.

10:22 a.m. – “We have to defend the three-point line,” says Owens. “They look to drive it and then kick it out.” In the teams’ first meeting, 13 of the 19 Boston College field goals came from three-point range (tied for most in history by an Irish opponent), with the Eagles connecting on 13 of 22 from beyond the arc.

10:29 a.m. – The Irish work through a variety of half-court sets, with Mabrey consistently talking and making sure her teammates are in the right places.

10:37 a.m. – McGraw calls for a quick water break, but the players are back at it in less than a minute.

10:39 a.m. – The blue unit extends full court on defense, as McGraw explains how Boston College is likely to attack that alignment.

11:14 a.m. – After several more segments, McGraw walks to the free-throw line as her players gather together. They call out “Irish” in unison and the practice is done.

The emphasis this morning is mostly on understanding what to expect on Sunday afternoon–and less on making shots.

Most of the players head to the locker room, but Turner–whose current 63 percent free-throwing shooting figure leaves something to be desired–immediately heads by herself to the east basket.

Taya Reimer offers to rebound, but Turner responds, “I’m good,” and the Irish rookie attempts a half-dozen free throws before heading to the locker room herself.

11:30 a.m. – The coaches and most of the staff drive to Atlantic Aviation on their own, while the players fill two University Sprinter vans. Lunch from Noodles and Company comes along.

11:45 a.m. – It’s now bright and 39 degrees as the Notre Dame group lounges at Atlantic Aviation, waiting to board its ADI Embraer145 charter flight for Boston.

The coaches exchange comments about Friday night’s Pac-12 results. Seventh-ranked Oregon State suffered a defeat, and 12th-rated Stanford lost at 10th-ranked Arizona State.

McGraw poses for a photo with a fan. Notre Dame professor Jessica Hellmann (she earned her Ph.D. from Stanford and specializes in conservation biology, population ecology and global change), the women’s basketball representative from the University’s Faculty Board on Athletics, arrives to accompany the team.

12:45 p.m. – The Irish finally depart Michiana Regional Airport, taking off toward the west and then smoothly banking north on the way to Boston. Once it drops the Notre Dame women’s team in Boston, the plane will head to Durham to bring the Irish men’s team home from its Saturday afternoon contest at Duke.

2:30 p.m. – The Irish flight lands at a bleak and very snowy Hanscom Field, the nearest airfield to the Boston College region. It takes a while for the team bus to maneuver onto the icy tarmac in the 25-degree conditions, so it’s 20 minutes before the bags are loaded and the team can depart.

3:08 p.m. – Notre Dame arrives at the Newton Marriott, maybe 15 minutes away from the Boston College campus.

The traveling squad immediately heads to its conference room for lunch–chicken, ham and turkey for sandwiches and spinach wraps, pasta salad, chicken noodle soup and fruit. Now there’s a little more than an hour for relaxation.

5 p.m. – The Irish are slated to practice at Conte Forum, but they must time their arrival based on the Boston College men’s game with North Carolina. That score goes final (the Tar Heels win 79-68) about 5:10 p.m. and the team departs a few minutes later. There’s a Starbucks in the lobby so a few staffers grab coffee for the road–with gloves, stocking caps and winter jackets the dress code.

As darkness ensues, traffic is heavy, especially around the Boston College campus, where a near capacity crowd from the men’s game is headed the other direction.

6 p.m. – The arena is virtually empty, save a few workers tearing down the television announcers’ position and a handful of others clearing the seating area of trash.

The student managers put 60:00 on the clock, and the second Irish workout of the day begins.

McGraw and Cunningham work at one basket, while Owens and Ivey handle the other. The subject is out-of-bounds plays, coming from under the rim and the sideline.

Meanwhile, operations chief and former Irish star Natalie Achonwa finalizes the ticket list for Sunday–and student manager Rebecca Moore offers menus from a local sandwich shop for Sunday post-game selections.

6:18 p.m. – A Boston College staffer brings by timing sheets for Sunday’s game and attaches them to several positions on the scorer’s table.

6:20 p.m. – Ivey and Cunningham set picks for the guards to set up free-throw circle jumpers. Owens works at the other end on various post moves. While the morning workout in South Bend didn’t emphasize shooting, this time the Irish want to gain a feel for the Conte Forum rims.

Irish radio play-by-play veteran Bob Nagle works on his game prep sheets for the next afternoon’s broadcast.

6:26 p.m. – The players all head to one end of the court and Owens directs what she expects Boston College to run on out-of-bounds options. The starting unit in grey defends.

6:48 p.m. – The Irish guards make entry passes to post players who are defended.

6:50 p.m. – First-time travel squad member Hellmann is introduced to the team, and she is set up as celebrity free-throw shooter of the day. Thanks maybe to a bit of practice and coaching from senior associate athletics director and sport administrator Jill Bodensteiner, Hellmann knocks down her attempt and earns the biggest cheer of the day from the squad. The players join in another loud “Irish” cheer, and the hour-long workout is finished.

Players fire away from the midcourt line, and Madison Cable finally banks one in and does a skip step to celebrate.

7:05 p.m. – It’s back on the bus–and back to the Marriott.

7:30 p.m. – Once the team arrives at the hotel, it immediately heads to dinner – Caesar salad, chicken, shrimp, rice, stir-fry vegetables, noodles and fruit. Rice Krispie treats are the lone desert option, but the coaching staff manages to wrangle a plate of chocolate-chip cookies. Achonwa protects the plate, as Turner pleads for the last one–to no avail, based on Achonwa’s impressive blocking-out skills.

Meanwhile, the snow returns late Saturday night–and by morning there’s close to another six inches on the ground. There’s some conjecture on whether the team’s charter flight will make it home Sunday night–but the heaviest snow is forecast for later tonight and the Irish should be winging their way back to campus by then.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

9:15 a.m. – McGraw is one of the first to arrive for breakfast. She’s already got her game day focus, and she’s almost finished eating before many others arrive. The players assemble in a few more minutes for scrambled eggs, French toast, bacon, sausage, fruit, oatmeal, cereal and bagels.

The dress remains ultra-casual–warm-up gear, basketball shorts and T-shirts.

9:40 a.m. – Irish video coordinator Garret Garcia and Owens collaborate to show some Boston College video segments to the Irish players. Owens takes the players through a personnel scouting report, including comments and clips on individual players. Owens is the designated expert on what to expect from the Eagles, and she offers plenty of detailed remarks on all sorts of Boston College tendencies.

“They want to take their time, run the offense, look to kick to the corner and the three-point line,” says Owens.

She shows several minutes of Boston College running its offense from the first meeting in South Bend–and then several minutes of Irish highlights set to music from that same game. Through scenes from the middle segment of that game, the players see virtually every successful offensive possession, as a last reminder of what helped them notch 104 points a month ago against the Eagles.

“The reason we had so much success last time was our defense. We need defensive intensity,” adds Owens.

9:53 a.m. – The players exit quickly, with departure for the game a little more than an hour away.

10:50 a.m. – Owens sits in the lobby, perusing her scouting report and making last-minute notes. McGraw arrives more than 15 minutes early and quickly jumps on the bus.

11:08 a.m. – The players long since know to walk out of their hotel rooms a few minutes early. Freshmen Kathryn Westbeld and Turner are the first to make the bus. The players carry their game shoes with their backpacks, but they already are wearing their game uniforms and warm-ups. Achonwa takes attendance, cell phones are off–and the bus is loaded and headed to Conte Forum. It’s all business now.

At Boston College, the players are first to leave the bus, followed by coaches and then staff members.

11:40 a.m. – The Irish arrive at the arena and stop off in double locker room E that features one area with lockers and a second with 16 maroon chairs facing a white board. The Irish coaches have their own adjacent locker room where trainer Anne Marquez tapes player ankles pregame.

11:42 a.m. – Loyd wastes no time hitting the court, with Cheek standing under the rim while she shoots. There’s a single Boston College player shooting free throws at the other end.

11:45 a.m. – Loyd avails herself of some gum from a large plastic bag.

11:50 a.m. – Music adds some life to the arena.

Mabrey’s father, Roy, is the one immediate family member attending the contest.

Among media covering the game are reporters from USA Today and the Associated Press, plus The Heights, the Boston College student newspaper.

Noon – Nagle heads back to the coaches’ locker area to tape his pregame interview with McGraw.

Katy Perry’s “Roar” rings out over the public-address system . . . . “Cause I am a champion and you’re going to hear me roar.”

12:10 p.m. – The Irish start their stretch with exactly 50 minutes on the clock.

There’s not much of a crowd on hand yet, and the forecast for more snow beginning later in the afternoon doesn’t help. The main roads are clear, but side streets are a bit hazardous and there are large piles of snow everywhere.

The Boston College team is dealing with four suspended players–two who didn’t start and two others who didn’t play at all Thursday against Clemson. The roles of those four are flipped today–with junior guard and second-leading scorer Nicole Boudreau (12.2 points per game) and junior forward Kat Cooper not in uniform this afternoon. That means the Eagles again will start three freshmen, as they did against Clemson when each of the three scored 14 points.

Every so often in the crowd can be seen a Notre Dame hat, a white Irish sweatshirt or a blue #1 Notre Dame football jersey.

With 20 minutes on the clock, the Irish head back inside for a final review. On the white board are defensive assignments for each starter, plus keys to the game: (1.) team defense, (2.) rebound and run, (3.) use high post versus zone and (4.) take advantage of mismatches.

12:38 p.m. – The support staffers and coaches all leave the locker room, and the players enjoy their own bit of music and motivation for a few moments. Next, the coaches stand outside in the hallway and slap hands with the players who are headed to the court for their formal warm-ups. McGraw looks for some water, and the coaches retreat to their locker room for a few more minutes.

If you didn’t know you were in Boston, a trip to the press room emphasizes that, with clam chowder on the menu.

12:45 p.m. – “Let’s get it started in here,” from the Black Eyed Peas’ hit, sounds inside the arena.

12:47 p.m. – Irish captains Markisha Wright, Mabrey and the injured Holloway meet with the Boston College captains and the officials at mid court.

Cunningham emerges to check the official starting lineup for the Eagles and returns to the locker room with that information.

12:56 p.m. – The Boston College team takes the floor to the Eagle fight song.

With 4:20 on the clock the Irish coaches, led by McGraw, head out for business. The Irish assistants hug their counterparts, and McGraw spends a few moments chatting with Eagles third-year head coach Erik Johnson.

With a minute on the clock, the Irish players gather and bounce as one in the far free-throw circle.

Both teams line up along their respective free-throw lines for the National Anthem, sung by former Boston College player Ayla Brown, a 2010 graduate who now is a country music singer after becoming a finalist in American Idol season five.

The lights dim for the Eagle introductions, with some Dropkick Murphys sounds to go with them. The Irish wear their Navy blue uniforms, while the Eagles are in light gold.

1:05 p.m. – The Irish win the tip and within 10 seconds Mabrey has connected for a long three-pointer that presages what’s to come.

Up 10-3, the Irish apply some full-court pressure after a Lindsay Allen full-court drive for a lay-in.

At the first television timeout, the video board shows a headline reading “Key Matchup” and featuring images of Loyd and Eagle rookie guard Ashley Kelsick.

Turnovers are already haunting the home team and that won’t change most of the afternoon. A Boston College missed layup turns into Mabrey’s second three and it’s 15-5.

The Eagles’ 6-1 sophomore, Emilee Daley, knocks down her second three, and McGraw stands and claps and exhorts her team to match up on defense. It’s 16-10, but the roof is about to cave in on Boston College.

From the 13:18 mark of the first half until the 7:16 juncture, the Eagles don’t score. Notre Dame runs off 20 straight points to make it 36-10. During that more than six-minute dry spell, the home team commits seven turnovers and misses five shots.

Cable connects for a three of her own to make it 27-10–and though Loyd hits only two of her first seven shots, it doesn’t matter. The Eagles simply can’t take care of the ball well enough to hang with the Irish. Ten minutes in Mabrey cans her fourth three ball, and Boston College has to call a timeout at 30-10.

Notre Dame doesn’t commit its second foul until the 8:33 mark (the Eagles miss two free throws there), and Cable rebounds her own miss under the rim for the last of the 20 unanswered Irish points. By this point, Boston College has turned the ball over 12 times and hit only four of 14 shots, while the Irish have piled up 10 assists and only a single turnover.

Mabrey’s fifth bomb makes it 41-12 at the 6:31 mark.

At the final media timeout of the opening half (with the Irish up 44-19), the Eagle promotions staff gives away a free pizza and that may be as big a cheer as there is to be had for home fans today.

1:50 p.m. – The first half finishes with Notre Dame on top 51-24. Boston College has 15 turnovers to four for the Irish. Notre Dame has hit seven of 11 three-pointers, compared to three for nine by the Eagles (all by Daley). Six different Irish combined for a dozen first-half assists.

The coaches head into their locker room, while the players quickly grab their seats facing the now-clean white board–as towels, drinks and snacks make the rounds. With about nine minutes left in intermission, McGraw comes to the front of her team with a sheet of notes.

“We can do a better job on the boards,” she says, noting the middling 20-16 Irish advantage. “A little more motion with the pick and roll. Push the ball in transition. On defense on the dribble handoff, be ready to switch. Don’t lose the shooters. Daley, number 22, has almost half their points.

“We’re getting pretty good shots – good job on assist to turnover.”

McGraw then speaks with Turner and Reimer and the other post players, and with five minutes on the clock the guards head back to the floor. McGraw asks Loyd, “What do you see?” – and the two exchange a few notes on strategy.

As the second half begins Daley (she hit four of her five three-point attempts in the teams’ first meeting) knocks down another from long distance, and McGraw stands, frowning with palms upraised, as if to say, “Didn’t we just talk about that?”

The Eagles are having tough luck around the rim against the bigger, taller Irish and the lead grows to 66-35. Eight minutes into the second half, both Turner and Reimer have doubled their individual first-half rebound numbers of three each.

A couple of Irish miscues prompt a mini-run by Boston College, but it’s not anywhere near enough. At the 8:15 mark Mabrey finds the net for her sixth three-pointer, and she already has a career-high 20 points.

With the Eagles paying a bit more attention to Mabrey’s shooting, the senior Irish guard becomes a passing machine, chalking up three straight assists on give-and-go plays, one to Westbeld and two to Cable. At the final media timeout it’s 84-48.

2:52 p.m. – It’s a final at 89-56.

Owens makes a quick stop at the media table for a post-game review with Nagle on the Irish radio outlet.

The players are back in their chairs, and when McGraw arrives she is typically low-key but obviously pleased:

“That’s excellent. I was worried we wouldn’t be ready, but we were more than ready. Mike (Mabrey) had 20 points, Maddie (Cable) had eight boards. . . . “

She notes a few other details on the effort, then turns to the schedule.

“We’re off Monday and Tuesday, then practice Wednesday and Thursday, then off Friday. Then we’ve got Duke on Monday.”

The Irish Hall of Fame coach also has to like that her team can look impressive with Loyd making only three of her 10 field-goal attempts (she still had 13 points, five steals, four assists and four rebounds) and with Turner playing only 20 minutes and contributing five points and six rebounds.

The Irish profit thanks to lots of contributors (nine different players record at least one assist and seven have two or more). Notre Dame finishes with 21 assists and 16 steals and has plenty to do with Boston College’s 26 turnovers.

There’s little outward celebration from anyone in the Irish camp, but, after all, this is a program with high expectations. The last four Notre Dame teams have jelled well enough by March to battle their way to NCAA Championship Final Fours. McGraw and her staff don’t yet know if this group will possess the high levels of production, consistency, toughness and moxie required to make it five.

The workmanlike effort in the books, McGraw and Mabrey step outside into the hallway for a quick meeting with the media.

“When Michaela hits threes like that it really opens things up for us. She really works on that, and it’s great to see her have success.” McGraw says. “We did not rebound quite as well as we needed, but we came out and played hard. And we got some good help from the bench, especially Cable (11 points) and Westbeld (12 points).”

Offers Mabrey, “It’s nice when I hit the first three. I don’t look down at the line, so I don’t really think of having any particular range.

“We play pretty unselfish. I love distributing and getting everyone the ball.”

With the weather expected to worsen, the players waste no time showering and dressing, and by 3:10 p.m. many have left the arena into spitting snow.

A handful of autograph seekers wait by the team entrance.

Waiting on the bus are orders of pizza, salad, pasta and sandwiches–and by 3:20 p.m. the bus is rolling. The snowplows are out in the Chestnut Hill neighborhoods as the bus snakes its way back to the Mass Pike.

The temperature has dropped to 19 degrees and more snow is headed to Boston. The Irish are getting out just in time. Ultimately, a storm drops another foot of snow on the area, closing schools Monday and Tuesday and cancelling most Boston Logan Airport flights Monday.

3:55 p.m. – The traveling party is back at Hanscom Field, with the temperature down to 16 degrees. After a quick de-icing, the Notre Dame charter lifts away at 4:40 p.m.

6:30 p.m. – The Irish arrive at SBN. The players jump on their bus, while most staff members head home in their own vehicles.

There’s no game for eight days, and it’s the longest break the Irish will have for a while.

Notre Dame is 23-2, ranked fourth in the country and first in the ACC standings.

There are plenty of challenges in the offing–but, for now, McGraw’s team continues to forge ahead.

— by John Heisler, senor associate athletics director