Feb. 6, 2015
When the University of Notre Dame women's basketball team arrives back on campus after Sunday's road game at Boston College, the Fighting Irish will have an eight-day break before taking on a grinding finish to the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season.
There will be a break from games, but there won't be a break from getting better.
Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw plans to use the upcoming week off from games to have the Irish sharpen the skills they will need in order to cut down the nets in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament and the NCAA Championship.
Notre Dame, which has reached the last four consecutive Final Fours, currently sits in first place in the ACC. The Irish are 9-1 in league play and 22-2 overall.
"I love it," McGraw said of the upcoming break. "It couldn't come at a better time. February is a long month. It's a real grind to get to the end of the season. You start looking at March and wondering where you're going to be. It's really important, especially with a young team, to keep that focus on one game at a time."
Notre Dame has five games left in the regular season after the week off. The Irish host Duke on Feb. 16 and then play at Georgia Tech Feb. 19. Louisville (Feb. 23) and Pittsburgh (Feb. 26) invade Purcell Pavilion, and then the Irish wrap up the regular season March 1 at North Carolina State.
McGraw said the buzz-saw schedule has challenged a young Irish squad, but it will help Notre Dame prepare for the NCAA Championship grind.
"I think it's great for us to be able to play so many good teams," McGraw said. "There are so many good teams in this league - we have to be ready every night - and I think we are. I think we're really coming along and finding our way."
In order to keep opponents guessing, the Irish will be adding new plays and looks during the week between games.
"We'll add some new things to our repertoire during the week off, so we have some new things for the tough games we have coming up," Irish assistant coach Niele Ivey said. "We want to finish off the ACC on a high note, so we're going to work hard and look at new things during the week off.
"We have a really tough schedule, bringing Duke here, bringing Louisville here ... Pittsburgh is a really tough team. We're going to focus on trying to get better defensively. That's an area we're concerned about. We need to execute better and work on the logistics."
Starting with Duke's 6-foot-4 All-American Elizabeth Williams, the Irish are going to face a tall order in the closing stretch.
"We have a lot of really good post players we're going to see in the stretch that's coming up, so we're going to be working on our post defense a lot," Ivey said. "We'll also look at extending our defense and containing the ball."
Offensively, the Irish are third in the nation in scoring, averaging 84.7 points a game. Ivey thinks the Irish can be even more explosive for the tournament.
"We're best in our transition offense, so we're always working on that," Ivey said. "Brianna Turner does a very good job in our ball-screen offense. Working on our passing is the biggest thing offensively. Lindsay Allen pretty much handles everything, but we need other people to step up with their passing."
Jewell Loyd, a 5-foot-10 All-America guard who leads the Irish with an average of 21.0 points a game, said there may be days off on the Irish game calendar, but she won't take a break from making progress.
"To me, there are no off days," Loyd said. "I'm going to be in the gym no matter what. I'm going to be doing whatever I need to do. I think it's a good break in terms of academics. The week off will allow us to focus on academics and make a lot of progress."
According to Loyd, the Irish need to improve their communication and smooth out the offense. The most important area of improvement the Irish need to get a handle on before the tournament, though, is playing with energy.
"I think we need to improve our intensity," Loyd said. "Sometimes our sense of urgency is slow. We have to crank that up. We have to play every game like it's our last game. Sometimes we come out slow, and we wait until the second half to get things going. We can't do that in the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Championship."
After Loyd's 21.0 scoring clip, freshman post Brianna Turner is averaging 15.5 points and 7.6 rebounds a game. Point guard Lindsay Allen averages 10.7 points a game, followed by Taya Reimer's 9.8 points and 6.4 rebounds. Kathryn Westbeld comes off the bench to contribute 7.8 points a game, and starting guard Michaela Mabrey averages 7.0 points a game. Madison Cable averages 5.8 points a game.
McGraw sees plenty of areas to polish before selections for the NCAA Championship are announced.
"We need to still get better offensively," McGraw said. "I want to fix the press and see if that can get better, but we need to add a lot more things offensively, put some new plays in. We've been relying on certain plays, and if we continue to use them people are going to try and take them away. I think it's a time to really shake things up."
Ivey thinks the Irish are close to being the team they want to be entering the tournament, but there is work to be done.
"I don't think we're far," Ivey said. "I think we're gaining strength and we're getting better, but I don't think we've peaked yet and that's a good thing. There are a lot of different areas we can work on. It's just a matter of executing. Lindsay Allen is one of the best, but we need that back-up point guard ready for those times Lindsay needs to come off the court for a breather. It's a matter of execution."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent