Nov. 24, 2014
When University of Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw wanted a burst of energy from her team in the early going against Harvard Monday night, she looked down her bench and quickly signaled No. 24 to sub in for the Fighting Irish.
Hannah Huffman checked in. Harvard hopes checked out.
Notre Dame went from a 13-7 lead with 14:04 left in the first half when Huffman stepped onto the court to a 29-10 lead when the 5-foot-9-inch junior guard from Diablo, California, headed to the bench at the 8:49 mark.
Huffman provided the Irish with an instant surge of intensity. She muscled inside for a putback less than a minute after entering the game. Within another minute, she stole the ball, drove and then dished to teammate Michaela Mabrey for a fast-break hoop. Shortly after that, Huffman hustled for a rebound that set up two free throws for Mabrey. Exactly 60 seconds later, another Huffman rebound meant another two points for the Irish.
No. 2 Notre Dame (5-0) went on to deck Harvard 97-43. Huffman finished with a career-high 12 points on four-of-six field-goal shooting and four-of-four free-throw shooting. She hustled for four rebounds and tormented Harvard's offense to come up with three of Notre Dame's 17 steals.
"Hannah is doing a great job of coming in and being a spark off the bench defensively," said McGraw. "She's somebody who is tough mentally and physically. She fights screens, she takes a lot of pride in her defense, she's going to sacrifice her body for the good of the team. She's working extremely hard. I'm really pleased with what she's doing defensively, and she's getting more comfortable on offense. I think she's made great strides.
"I think Hannah is playing like a junior. She's starting to figure things out. She understands what her role is. She's accepted her role. She wants to contribute, and she's found a way to contribute. The more she plays, the better she's going to be."
Last season, Huffman averaged 1.1 points and 1.3 rebounds a game. Through five games this season, Huffman is averaging 6.4 points and 4.2 rebounds a game.
"I think each year opened up new things to get better at," Huffman said about her development. "My freshman year I came in from being a guard in high school to being more of a post. I worked on my rebounding game, being a more physical player. Last year, I got more of the role of being a defensive stopper, and so I worked all last year on that. This year Coach (McGraw) is encouraging me to have more of an all-around offensive game. When you put all three years together, it's helped me become more of a complete player, but I know I have a lot more work to do."
Notre Dame associate coach Beth Cunningham said Huffman has forged a powerful focus in practice and displays a better understanding of the Irish system on offense and defense. A key component in Huffman's progress is experience.
"Now being a junior, you can see maybe the ups and downs she had a little bit her freshman and sophomore years. You're starting to see things click a little more, and you're starting to see that when she's playing games," Cunningham said. "From her freshman to her sophomore year and now in her junior year I just think she's more comfortable with what her role is and how it can help the team.
"Certainly, losing, due to graduation, some of (Kayla McBride's) ability to rebound, and K-Mac's ability to defend, being a big guard, Hannah provides a big, tough, strong guard for us. It's certainly something we have a need for."
Getting comfortable with the Irish way and playing at the highest level of NCAA Division I basketball has been a difference-maker for Huffman.
"That's the one thing I've noticed more than anything about myself. When I go out there I'm not super, super jumpy or nervous," Huffman said. "I'm more, 'I've been here for two years now. I know what it's like to be in front of these amazing fans.' Being comfortable really helped me open up my game and has allowed me to do things I know I'm capable of doing."
Huffman brought toughness and energy to Notre Dame when she arrived on campus, and she's building off those strengths to contribute to the team.
"I think the reason I'm getting on the court more is that in practice I really try to be a grittier defender, a grittier rebounder and have a nose for the ball," Huffman said. "I think that's really helped me. I know that sometimes we need that energy player to come off the bench. Coach (McGraw) has encouraged me to have that role, and I like that role. When I go in there, I want to make sure the game notices that I come in and I help my team in whatever way I can."
Where Huffman can help the Irish in particular is defense.
McGraw, who has guided the Irish to one national championship and the last four NCAA Final Fours (six overall), said having a player who brings the energy and intensity to be a lock-down defender is critical for a long run in March.
"It's so important when (Notre Dame All-American) Jewell Loyd needs a rest, because Hannah is the one person who can get up and defend a really good player on the perimeter," McGraw said. "She's very important to us when we start looking at the need to shut down one particular player. Hannah is really good at focusing on that one job. I'm very comfortable and confident in her ability to do that."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent