Jan. 15, 2017
By Leigh Torbin
One of the most fascinatingly streaky rivalries among elite women's basketball programs reignites on ESPN2's "Big Monday" but with a greater purpose as No. 6 Notre Dame travels south to face Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena. The contest kicks off "We Back Pat" week, commemorating the legacy of the most iconic female coach of all-time, late Lady Vols head coach Pat Summitt, and raising awareness for Alzheimer's disease from which she suffered prior to her passing this summer.
Here are some nuggets about the game.
Reaching For the Summitt
Pat Summitt's accomplishments at Tennessee will forever remain among the top in the sport. Despite having her coaching career cut short by Alzheimer's Summit won an NCAA record 1,098 games as head coach of her home state's flagship University, eight national championships, 16 SEC regular season titles and 16 SEC Tournament championships. She even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Summitt did this at a time when media coverage of women's sports was first becoming prominent and sports programs for women were expanding nationwide under the influence of title IX. When "girl power" was exploding across America, the leading female coaching figure was Summit, whom Sports Illustrated's cover once dubbed "the wizard of Knoxville" in reference to UCLA men's basketball (and South Bend Central High School) coaching legend John Wooden who was often referred to "the wizard of Westwood."
"She is somebody that everybody looked up to," said Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame's Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Women's Basketball Coach. "Everybody wanted to be Pat Summitt. They wanted to do what she did for the game and for her players. I think she was a role model for everyone in the game of basketball."
McGraw is one of the plucky women who has followed closest along the trail blazed by Summitt. McGraw has claimed 748 wins in her 30 seasons at Notre Dame -- a school with which she is now synonymous. McGraw is likely soon to become just the fourth female coach to win 750 games at a single Division I University, joining three Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers in Summitt (1,098 at Tennessee), Tara VanDerveer (841 wins at Stanford) and Jody Conradt (783 wins at Texas).
With a career record of 836-266, including her five years at Lehigh, McGraw is the sixth-winningest female coach in NCAA history behind only the afore-mentioned trio and Hall of Famers Sylvia Hatchell and C. Vivian Stringer. On April 7, McGraw will become just the third female coach to receive the Wooden Awards' Legends of Coaching Award, joining Summitt, VanDerveer, and a host of men's coaching legends like Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski. She will be just the fourth recipient from the women's basketball community alongside Summitt, VanDerveer and UConn's Geno Auriemma. McGraw coached 18 games against Summitt, a woman from whom she drew vital inspiration.
"She was someone that I could look to and say `this is how you should coach. This is how you want to be as a coach. This is the kind of person you want to be. This is the kind of coach you want to be. This is what you want to do on the court and off the court'," McGraw said. "And to be involved in the game too. Giving back to the game is something that she did so well."
Notre Dame-Tennessee History
Notre Dame trails the all-time series with Tennessee, 20-6, and that record has come in a somewhat unusual manner as the Lady Vols won each of the first 20 meetings between the two teams and the Irish have now claimed each of the past six meetings.
The turning point came in noteworthy fashion as the Irish downed the Lady Vols, 73-59, on March 28, 2011, in an Elite Eight game played at Dayton. Skylar Diggins scored 24 points to lead all scrorers while Natalie Novosel chipped in 17 and Becca Bruszewski scored 13 with eight rebounds. The matchup was one of four between the teams during the postseason. Tennessee beat Notre Dame in the 1997 Final Four, 2002 NCAA Second Round and 2008 Sweet 16 before the Irish broke through with the 2011 Elite Eight win.
In last year's game, also played on Martin Luther King Day, six different Notre Dame players scored in double figures during a 79-66 win at Purcell Pavilion. Brianna Turner filled out her stat line nicely with 14 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and three assists.
Only UConn (35) has beaten Notre Dame more times than Tennessee's 20. DePaul is third with 19 wins over the Irish.
The Irish are gunning for a historic win Monday night on perhaps the sport's most sacred hardwood. Since the Lady Vols won their first national championship in 1987, no school has ever defeated them seven times in a row. Notre Dame's active run of six straight wins over the Lady Vols ties a UConn run of six wins from 2002-04 for the longest sustained string of success against Tennessee over the past 30 years.
About the Lady Vols
The 2016-17 edition of the Lady Vols stands at 10-6 on the season at 2-2 in SEC play. Tennessee has topped two ranked teams this year, taking down No. 10 Stanford and No. 17 Kentucky, but has dropped contests to No. 4 Baylor, No. 17 Texas and No. 4 Mississippi State. In their lone contest against an ACC team, the Lady Vols lost, 67-63, at Virginia Tech on Nov. 27.
Tennessee boasts three players averaging at least 15 points per game, including 6-6 center Mercedes Russell (16.4 ppg), guard Diamond DeShields (16.3) and forward Jaime Nared (15.4). Only once in Tennessee's history has three players averaged 15 points per game for a season, the famed "three Meeks" of Chamique Holdsclaw (23.5), Tamika Catchings (18.2) and Semeka Randall (15.9) who led the Lady Vols to an undefeated 1997-98 campaign.
That trio has accounted for 48.1 out of Tennessee's 75.4 points per game (64%). Russell is also just six rebounds shy of averaging a double-double with her 154 in 16 games (9.6 per game) while blocking a team-high 27 shots.
Back on the Road
This Tennessee game is the first of three road games in seven days for Notre Dame, joining contests at Boston College (Jan. 19) and North Carolina (Jan. 22). The Irish will make three separate trips this week, returning to campus between the stops, as spring semester classes start on Tuesday. These games are all part of a stretch in which the Irish will play 10 out of 12 games away from the comforts of Purcell Pavilion.
The Irish offense has been notably more potent at home, averaging 84.6 points per game as opposed to 71.9 on the road. However, Notre Dame's defense has not missed a beat regardless of venue posting remarkably similar numbers. The Irish have held foes to 58.6 points per game and .380 shooting at home while permitting 57.9 points per game and .381 shooting on the road.
Notre Dame has generally not been fazed when playing on the road. The Irish have compiled a 55-3 (.948) record on the road over the past five seasons. The loss at NC State (Dec. 29) snapped a 15-game road winning streak which is tied for the 12th-longest in NCAA history.
Checking the NCAA Leaders
NCAA leaders below are from the Saturday, Jan. 14 update.
Notre Dame has proved to be one of the best shooting teams in the nation this season. The Irish stand fifth in field goal percentage at 49.2 and ninth in 3-point field goal percentage at 39.2. It has added up to a team ranked 18th in scoring offense at 79.3 points per game. Notre Dame, UConn, Washington and Baylor are the only teams in the top 10 for both field goal and 3-point field goal percentage
Some other team categories where the Irish collectively excel and rank in the top 25 include assists (5th with 344), assists per game (7th at 19.1), assist to turnover ratio (10th at 1.33), scoring margin (10th at +21.4), rebounding margin (13th at +10.3), rebounds (17th at 737) and steals (23rd at 180).
Two-time Nancy Lieberman Award finalist Lindsay Allen has made a quick claim to her status as the country's top point guard, not only in how she keeps the Irish under control, but also for her passing ability. Allen is fifth nationally with 127 assists and 10th with 7.1 assists per game. Allen is currently second with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.63 and led the nation in this field entering the Dec. 20 game at Michigan State. She is either first or second in the ACC in all three categories as well. Allen is also 55th nationally in steals (39).
Allen's 686 career assists rank second among active players behind only Northwestern's Ashley Deary who has 704.
Brianna Turner has shot the ball well this year and stands 20th nationally with her field goal percentage of 58.3%. Her recent surge has also left her 27th nationally in blocked shots with 36.
How to Watch/Listen
ESPN2 will broadcast the game nationally with Dave O'Brien, Doris Burke and Kara Lawson on the call. Games are also available online at WatchESPN.com (formerly branded as ESPN3) or through the WatchESPN app. Streams are free to all ESPN subscribers.
Information on how to access WatchESPN is available here.
For those familiar with the WatchESPN, the direct link to the webcast of Monday's game is available here.
Bob Nagle is in his 12th season as the radio voice of the Irish. Notre Dame's local home on the radio is Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) while the audio is also available globally via WatchND.tv and the WatchND app. The audio link for the broadcast is here.
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications associate director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for Notre Dame's women's basketball and men's golf teams. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor's degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.