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Sunday Brunch: Irish Okay Where They Are

Feb. 4, 2017

By John Heisler

Let’s make this perfectly clear.

Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw absolutely abhors losing games.

So don’t even begin to think she has any intention of endorsing any of the three losses her Irish (21-3) have endured so far in 2016-17.

Top-rated Connecticut? North Carolina State (this week ranked 15 th) on the road? Tennessee on the road on the evening the Lady Vols honored Pat Summitt?

With all due respect to the Huskies, Pack and Lady Vols, McGraw believes her team should have/would have/could have won each of those contests. And she’s probably right-even with the tall order that represents those ever-present Huskies, who, at least on paper, appeared to come to South Bend in December in a more vulnerable state compared to recent Geno Auriemma editions.

So all that has left the Irish ranked seventh (Associated Press poll) and eighth (USA Today poll of coaches) this past week-and here’s saying that’s not so bad.

Heresy, you say?

Well, consider all this, based mostly on how the bar has been set exceedingly high by McGraw and Company thanks to their recent success:

–None of the past five full seasons have produced more than three defeats (11 combined losses over that period, compared to 176 wins).

–The Irish normally have been trolling somewhere around one of the top three poll spots for weeks on end (including second on this same week in 2012, ’13 and ’14 and third a year ago).

That’s rare air.

So, while the women’s hoops masses have been obsessing over (a.) just how much longer the UConn win streak will go on (it’s now nearing 100 games), (b.) who will emerge as the best among the current one-loss teams (Baylor, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Maryland) or (c.) whether the Gamecocks, Bulldogs and Baylor can hold onto the projected number-one seeds the NCAA blessed them with a few weeks back (along with UConn), the Irish toil in relative and comparative obscurity.

Don’t think McGraw’s crew has disappeared entirely:

–The Irish stand alongside Florida State at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings, both with one defeat. The two teams meet Feb. 26 at Purcell Pavilion to close the regular season.

“The ACC this year is the toughest the league has been since we’ve been in it,” McGraw says.

–The Irish assuredly are headed for a couple of home games on the first weekend of the NCAA Championship, unless they fall completely off the map.

Meanwhile, McGraw and her staff have another month or so to mix and mold all their pieces and parts and try to summon up a version of the Irish capable of advancing into a sixth NCAA Final Four weekend in the last seven attempts.

How will they do that?

They’ll see if they can elicit from the uber-talented Brianna Turner a boringly consistent night-after-night line of 19 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks (just as examples).

They’ll continue to refine the roles of newcomers Jackie Young, Erin Boley and Ali Patberg-with the thought that one, two or three of them might catch fire in March.

They’ll continue to tell savvy, veteran guard Lindsay Allen that, as much as they love the way she defends, distributes and runs the show, they don’t mind at all the times she decides to take control of the game. She currently ranks third nationally (and leads the ACC) in assists per game (7.7)

All that and much more will be part of early afternoon practice sessions on the Purcell Pavilion floor.

So, Irish fans, stay tuned.

Notre Dame has made solid strides in carving out an identity-with McGraw’s crew leading the ACC in three-point field-goal percentage (.399), overall field-goal percentage (.489) and assists (19.1 per game) and ranking third, fourth and fifth, respectively, on a national basis in those categories. In many of their victories the Irish have benefitted from a critical run in which their offensive efficiency has been off the charts.

The Irish will continue to work on defense and eliminating turnovers. Day by day they’ll grow the sort of grit, toughness and moxie that players like Hannah Huffman, Madison Cable and Michaela Mabrey injected so well a year ago.

“We are still a work in progress and I think we are getting better, but we have a way to go,” allows McGraw.

Yet there’s no reason to obsess about the polls the rest of the winter.

March will be here in a handful of weeks, and the ACC Championship (an event in which the Irish have yet to lose a game) begins the first of that month.

History says the Notre Dame women’s basketball team will be ready.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering Notre Dame athletics since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings.