Dec. 7, 2012
#5/5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (5-1 / 0-0 BIG EAST) vs. Utah State Aggies (2-6 / 0-0 WAC)
DATE: December 8, 2012
No. 5 Fighting Irish Welcome Utah State To Town For Saturday Matinee
The Fighting Irish (5-1) will be seeking to bounce back from their first loss of the 2012-13 season, a 73-61 setback against No. 3 Baylor on Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion. In a rematch of last year's NCAA national championship game, Notre Dame pushed the Bears nearly to the breaking point before BU used a 10-0 run in the final seven minutes to pull clear.
Freshman guard Jewell Loyd had a stellar night with a game-high 24 points (making 4-of-5 from three-point range) and team-best seven rebounds. Junior guard Kayla McBride added 18 points and junior forward Natalie Achonwa contributed 11 points for the Fighting Irish.
Other Notre Dame Notables
Scouting Utah State
This year's Aggies (2-6) have been living out of their duffel bags for the first month of the season, with Saturday's game at Notre Dame marking their eighth contest away from home. That extensive road swing not only includes the visit to South Bend (3,000 miles round trip from USU's campus in Logan, Utah), but a 6,000-mile round-trip journey north to Anchorage, Alaska, for the Great Alaska Shootout during the Thanksgiving weekend.
Utah State last played on Tuesday night, dropping a slim 81-77 decision at in-state rival BYU. The Aggies led by as many as six points early, then trailed by double digits in the second half before a late rally came up short. Senior guard Jenna Johnson led four USU players in double figures with 18 points (7-10 FG).
Sharpshooting senior guard Devyn Christiansen leads the Aggies' attack, averaging 22.3 points per game while attempting better than 10 three-pointers a night (she's shooting .346 from the arc). Johnson is second in scoring (13.5 ppg.) and tops in rebounding (6.5 rpg.), while sophomore center Franny Vaaulu added 10.0 points per game and a team-high .559 field goal percentage.
Head coach Jerry Finkbeiner is in his first season at Utah State after a 15-year run at Oral Roberts (1996-2012) and six prior seasons at NAIA power Southern Nazarene, which he led to three national titles (1994-96). Finkbeiner has a 456-238 (.657) career record, including a 275-214 (.562) NCAA Division I mark, with Saturday's game being his first against Notre Dame.
The Notre Dame-Utah State Series
Other Notre Dame-Utah State Series Tidbits
Notre Dame vs. The Western Athletic Conference
The Fighting Irish will be playing a current WAC school for the first time since Dec. 28, 1990, when they defeated then-No. 11 Louisiana Tech, 71-66 in the opening round of the Texaco-Hawk Classic, hosted by head coach Muffet McGraw's alma mater, Saint Joseph's (Pa.), in Philadelphia. That remains the only time a McGraw-coached Fighting Irish team has faced a WAC opponent.
Louisiana Tech also was the opponent the only prior time a current WAC member visited Purcell Pavilion on Feb. 11, 1983, with the then-defending national champion Lady Techsters taking an 81-39 victory.
Notre Dame's other victory against the present WAC alignment came on Jan. 4, 1986, when the Fighting Irish ousted Texas State, 68-43 in the consolation game of Miami's Burger King Classic in Coral Gables, Fla.
Earlier this week, the WAC announced Chicago State would be joining the conference for the 2013-14 season. Notre Dame faced the Cougars twice before, winning both meetings in 1979 (78-55) and 1980 (68-61), which occurred at the Northern Illinois Huskie Invitational in DeKalb, Ill.
One final side note -- the Fighting Irish indirectly crossed paths with current WAC member Seattle University just two years ago (Dec. 29-30, 2010), when they visited the Pacific Northwest to take part in SU's State Farm Holiday Hoops Classic at Key Arena (also the home of the WNBA's Seattle Storm). Notre Dame defeated Gonzaga (70-61) and Loyola Marymount (91-47) to claim the tournament title, with current Fighting Irish junior guard Kayla McBride scoring a career-high 20 points in the win over LMU, while two-time Notre Dame All-America forward (and future WNBA first-round/lottery draft pick) Devereaux Peters was named the tournament's most valuable player.
It All Started With The WAC
That result stood as the highest-ranked opponent Notre Dame defeated in its first 18 seasons of existence (from 1977-78 to 1995-96), along with being the third of what is now a total of 89 wins over Top 25 opponents by the Fighting Irish during McGraw's legendary Hall of Fame coaching career.
When Notre Dame followed up its historic victory over Louisiana Tech with a 72-53 win over Saint Joseph's the following night in the tournament title game, it led Mel Greenberg, the longtime Philadelphia Inquirer Hall of Fame sportswriter (and founder of the Associated Press poll) to opine that "they were the kinds of wins that get a team noticed on the national level."
Sure enough, two days later on New Year's Eve 1990, Notre Dame entered the AP poll for the first time in program history at No. 25, remaining there for the next nine weeks. It remains one of the small (and sometimes forgotten) first steps for the Fighting Irish on the road to where they now reside as one of college basketball's elite powers.
Notre Dame's only other game against a Utah school came early in head coach Muffet McGraw's first season under the Golden Dome (Dec. 5, 1987), when the Fighting Irish defeated BYU, 81-69, in the consolation game of the UWGB Phoenix Classic in Green Bay, Wis.
Saturday's game against Utah State will mark the first time a women's basketball team from the Beehive State has played at Purcell Pavilion.
Caution -- Falling Bears!
Following the game, on the public address announcer's cue, fans are invited to toss their teddy bears onto the court at Purcell Pavilion, creating the memorable sight of stuffed animals raining down on the floor (and occasionally pelting an unsuspecting media member or game official sitting courtside).
Last year, the Notre Dame women's basketball program collected more than 2,000 stuffed animals through its Teddy Bear Toss, with those donations later presented to patients at Riley Children's Hospital in South Bend.
Game #6 Recap: Baylor
Even though her young, yet fifth-ranked Fighting Irish were beaten by the Bears -- just as they were in the national title game last season -- McGraw thinks her squad offered more of a challenge this time.
The game was tied with seven minutes to go when Baylor (7-1) used a 10-0 run to pull away en route to a 73-61 victory Wednesday night over Notre Dame, which has only two starters back from last year's team.
"We were much better than we were last year, with a much younger team -- and they have the same team. So I was pleased. I think we've gotten better," she said. "I think when we watch the tape, we're going to see so many growing mistakes."
Brittney Griner had 24 points and 14 rebounds, three other Baylor players scored in double figures and the Bears won the battle inside. They outscored the Fighting Irish, 36-26 in the paint and outrebounded them, 44-35.
The bright spot for Notre Dame was freshman guard Jewell Loyd scoring a season-high 24 points. Loyd said she felt comfortable playing in her first big game.
"I just came to the game thinking it was just another home game, and I got into a rhythm early," she said.
Odyssey Sims returned after missing four games with a hamstring injury and added 16 points for Baylor. Brooklyn Pope added 14 points for the Bears, and Jordan Madden scored 12 points.
BU head coach Kim Mulkey said she was impressed by Loyd.
"She's a tremendous jump shooter. Not many can take it off the dribble and shoot a jump shot. She's a special talent," she said.
However, despite the sellout crowd of 9,149, the Fighting Irish couldn't knock off the defending national champions as the men did six days earlier against Kentucky on the same floor.
Beyond The Box Score: Baylor
The Lincolnwood, Ill., native has appeared in all six games for the Fighting Irish this season (starting five times), scoring in double figures four times and posting two "5-5-5" games (at least "5" in three of the five main statistical categories - points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals).
For the season, Loyd ranks among the top 20 in the BIG EAST in scoring (12th - 14.5 ppg.), rebounding (16th - 6.2 rpg.), three-point percentage (tie-3rd - .500) and assist/turnover ratio (12th - 1.80). She also was the BIG EAST Rookie of the Week on Nov. 26 after averaging 19.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists with a .727 field goal percentage in wins over Mercer (19 points/six rebounds/five assists) and at No. 19/22 UCLA (19 points/seven rebounds/five assists).
Loyd opened eyes on the national scene with a game-high 24 points and team-best seven rebounds in Wednesday's 73-61 loss to third-ranked Baylor. The 5-foot-10 guard connected on her first four three-point attempts of the evening (finishing 4-of-5 from beyond the arc) on the way to notching the most points by a Fighting Irish rookie against a ranked opponent since Jan. 26, 2002, when Jacqueline Batteast scored 26 points in Notre Dame's 64-57 win over No. 16/17 Virginia Tech at Purcell Pavilion.
What's more, Loyd also scored the most points by a Notre Dame freshman against an opponent ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll since Feb. 19, 2000, when Alicia Ratay netted 26 points (including a school-record 7-for-7 three-pointers) in a 78-74 overtime win at No. 8/11 Rutgers.
Spreading The Wealth
Mix And Match
The Fighting Irish finally repeated a starting lineup in their sixth game this season (Dec. 5 against Baylor), with the combination of junior forwards Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker, plus senior guard Skylar Diggins, freshman guard Jewell Loyd and junior guard Kayla McBride earning their second nod together (they also opened Notre Dame's 76-64 win at No. 19/22 UCLA on Nov. 23).
Everyone Pitches In
Thus far in 2012-13, it would appear the Fighting Irish are making this mission truly a team effort. On the scoring side, seven of the 11 players on the roster have scored in double figures at least once this season, including freshman guards Jewell Loyd (four times) and Michaela Mabrey (once), and junior forward Ariel Braker (twice, after having two double-figure games in her first two seasons combined).
On the backboards, junior forward Natalie Achonwa ranks fourth in the BIG EAST at 9.2 rebounds per game and has piled up four of her six career double-digit rebounding games this year. The Guelph, Ontario, native, and 2012 Canadian Olympic Team member also has a BIG EAST-leading four double-doubles (including three of the past four contests) after logging one double-double in her career prior to this season.
The Best Things In Life Are Free
Through their first six games, the Fighting Irish lead the BIG EAST and rank fifth in the nation, shooting a remarkable .790 (98-of-124) from the charity stripe, including a season-high .905 (19-of-21) in their Nov. 18 home-opening win over Massachusetts. On average, Notre Dame is getting to the line nearly 21 times per game, converting better than 16 free throws a night.
Last year, Notre Dame set a school record by connecting at a .763 clip from the foul line, leading the BIG EAST with a stellar .807 percentage during conference play.
Junior guard Kayla McBride has had the most success cashing in on this strategy during the past two seasons, shooting .872 from the stripe last year (a league-leading .919 in BIG EAST games) and making 11 of 12 free throws (.917) so far this season.
For her career, McBride has logged an .874 free throw percentage, putting her slightly ahead of Alicia Ratay's school-record mark (.872) from 1999-2003.
Diggins Challenging School Records
The Diggins Factor
Upon closer examination, Notre Dame's 19 losses in Diggins' career primarily have been ones that could have gone either way, with 11 decided by single digits (six were in doubt inside the final minute), and two that went to overtime.
With Diggins in uniform, the Fighting Irish have posted three of the top 10 most prolific offensive seasons in school history, averaging 78.9 ppg. last year, after logging 77.0 ppg. in 2010-11, and 77.2 ppg. in her freshman season of 2009-10.
In addition, thanks to Diggins' penchant for steals (she has a 2.42 spg. career mark that is fourth-best in school history), the Fighting Irish have recorded the top three single-season steal marks in program history with 502 thefts last year, 495 steals in 2010-11, and 450 thefts in 2009-10.
The past two years also have seen Notre Dame post two of the four best defensive scoring average in school history, allowing a school-record 52.9 ppg., last season (well ahead of the previous mark of 55.1 ppg., in 1981-82) and giving up just 56.2 ppg., in 2010-11.
Renowned rapper, actor, author, poet, model and activist (and Chicago native) Common was on hand to witness the 76-64 Fighting Irish victory, and then stopped by the Notre Dame locker room after the game to greet and take photos with the Fighting Irish players and coaches.
Notre Dame also had a celebrity take in one of its home games, as Grammy Award-winning rapper Lil Wayne had a courtside seat on Dec. 5 to watch the Fighting Irish play host to Baylor at Purcell Pavilion.
The game was played to benefit the Wounded Warriors Project, which aids returning veterans who have been injured while in the service of our country, and the Fighting Irish were exceptionally proud and honored to have former Notre Dame guard, U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient Danielle Green (`00) join the team on the bench for their historic game against Ohio State. Green, who lost her left (shooting) hand in May 2004 during a rocket-propelled grenade attack while on patrol on the roof of a police station in Baghdad, Iraq, delivered an inspiring pre-game speech to the current Fighting Irish squad before they came out to face Ohio State.
Notre Dame won this year's Carrier Classic game, 57-51, behind the second career double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) from junior forward Natalie Achonwa and 16 points from junior guard Kayla McBride. After the game, head coach Muffet McGraw said the victory was dedicated to Green.
The Fighting Irish reached a milestone on Nov. 26 with their No. 5 ranking, which was their 100th consecutive AP poll appearance. It not only extended the program record that started with the AP preseason poll in 2007-08 (the old record was 59 consecutive weeks from 1998-2001), but it made the Fighting Irish are one of six teams in the nation with an active streak of 100 consecutive AP poll appearances.
What's more, every current Notre Dame player has competed for a ranked Fighting Irish squad throughout her career (62 consecutive weeks for the current senior class), spending the vast majority (51) of those appearances in the AP Top 10 (and never lower than 18th).
Notre Dame started the year at No. 7 in the preseason AP poll, representing the 13th time in the past 14 years (starting with the 1999-2000 campaign) that Notre Dame has appeared in the initial AP poll, something only seven schools in the nation have done -- Connecticut, Duke and Tennessee have shown up in all 14 during that span, while Georgia, Oklahoma and Stanford join the Fighting Irish with 13 preseason AP poll berths.
Notre Dame has been ranked in the AP poll for 240 weeks during the program's 36-year history, with every one of those appearances coming in the Muffet McGraw era (since 1987-88). McGraw ranks ninth among all active NCAA Division I head coaches for weeks in the AP poll, and 20th all-time in that category.
In addition, the Fighting Irish are holding steady at No. 5 for the third consecutive week in the latest ESPN/USA Today/WBCA coaches' poll, after starting the season at No. 6 for the first two weeks.
Notre Dame has been ranked in the coaches' poll for 101 of the past 102 weeks (and 65 in a row), falling just outside the Top 25 in the final poll of the 2008-09 season. Nevertheless, the Fighting Irish have appeared in the coaches' poll for a total of 234 weeks during their history (all coming during McGraw's tenure).
This marks the fifth consecutive season Notre Dame has been ranked in the top 10 of the ESPN/USA Today/WBCA poll, as well as 11 of the past 15 campaigns (1998-99 to present).
More Polling Data
Besides her 240 AP poll appearances while coaching at Notre Dame, McGraw was the starting point guard at Saint Joseph's (Pa.) as a senior in 1977, helping the Hawks to No. 3 in the nation.
Of the 32 people on this list, 15 currently are NCAA Division I head coaches (see accompanying chart), with McGraw and Baylor's Kim Mulkey are the only active skippers to play for and coach a team in the AP poll, and coach that team to a national title (McGraw in 2001, Mulkey in 2005 and 2012).
Half And Half
What's more, in the past four seasons (2009-10 to present), Notre Dame is 89-2 (.978) when leading at the half, with the only losses coming on April 5, 2011, in the NCAA national championship game at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (Notre Dame led Texas A&M, 35-33 at intermission before falling 76-70), and Feb. 12, 2012, against West Virginia (Fighting Irish led 33-30 at the break before the visiting Mountaineers rallied to win in the closing seconds, 65-63).
The Best Offense Is A Good Defense...
...But Sometimes You Have To Score If You Want To Win
In the past four years (2009-10 to present), Notre Dame is 47-2 (.959) when topping the 80-point mark, having reached that level twice this season.
Now That's A Home Court Advantage
Since the arena was renovated prior to the 2009-10 season, Notre Dame is 50-5 (.909) -- including wins in 26 of their last 28 home games -- and three of the five Fighting Irish losses in their refurbished facility have come by three points or fewer (two in overtime).
Notre Dame also has a 120-20 (.857) record in BIG EAST Conference play at the former Joyce Center, sporting a program-record 31-game league winning streak at home before it ended with a 48-45 loss to Villanova in the `02 home finale.
The Fighting Irish have been particularly strong when it comes to non-conference games at home, winning 105 of their last 114 non-BIG EAST contests (.921) at Purcell Pavilion, dating back to the 1994-95 season. Five of the nine losses in that span came at the hands of Big Ten Conference opponents (four by 12 points or less) -- Wisconsin in 1996 (81-69), Purdue in 2003 (71-54), Michigan State in 2004 (82-73 OT), Indiana in 2006 (54-51) and Minnesota in 2009 (79-71) -- with the other defeats coming to Tennessee in 2005 (62-51) and 2008 (87-63), UCLA in 2010 (86-83 in 2OT) and Baylor in 2012 (73-61). The Purdue loss also snapped a 33-game non-conference home winning streak which began after the UW setback.
Since its inaugural season in 1977-78, Notre Dame has played all of its games at the former Joyce Center, posting a 373-90 (.806) record at the venerable facility. Three times (1999-2000, 2000-01 and 2003-04), the Fighting Irish went a perfect 15-0 at home, which was the school record for home victories in a season prior to the 2009-10 campaign, when Notre Dame went 16-1, a mark that lasted only two seasons before the Fighting Irish posted a 17-1 record at Purcell Pavilion last year.
Irish Are The Hottest Ticket In Town
For the fourth consecutive preseason, Notre Dame fans all but exhausted the program's season ticket packages (approximately 7,500) and snapped up single-game ducats at a rate that helped the Fighting Irish produce two advanced sellouts (Dec. 5 vs. Baylor; March 4 vs. Connecticut).
Notre Dame has gotten its home slate off to a fine start at the box office with two sellouts in three home games, with the Nov. 18 game against Massachusetts marking the first home-opening sellout in school history. All told, the Fighting Irish have welcomed 27 sellout crowds in the program's 36-year tenure, including 21 in the past four years alone (2009-10 to present).
The Fighting Irish currently are averaging 8,863 fans through their first three home games of 2012-13.
Coming Soon: Irish in the ACC
The change in conference affiliation (for which a timetable has not yet been established) will be the first for Notre Dame since 1995, when the Fighting Irish moved from the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now the Horizon League) to the BIG EAST Conference.
In its 18 seasons in the BIG EAST, the Notre Dame women's basketball program has been the one of the conference's best, winning two BIG EAST regular-season titles (2001 and 2012) and compiling a 216-64 (.771) record in league play that remains the second-best regular-season winning percentage in BIG EAST women's basketball history.
Irish Fans Crave Another Big Mac Attack
In the six-year history of the promotion (and counting exhibition games), Notre Dame has hit the 88-point mark 37 times, most recently on Nov. 20 against Mercer.
Junior forward Ariel Braker, senior guard Kaila Turner and sophomore forward Markisha Wright are the leaders among current Fighting Irish players, with all three players having registered three "Big Mac baskets" during their respective careers.
And for those tracking such things (or perhaps falling under the heading of "the media relations director has way too much time on his hands"), 20 different players have converted the "burger ball", including seven current members of the Fighting Irish roster.
What's more, of the 37 Big Mac games, 17 have been reached on two-point baskets, 13 on free throws, and seven on three-pointers.
Next Game: Alabama A&M (World Vision Classic)
A member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Alabama A&M is 1-3 this season, and is in the midst of an unusual three-week break in its schedule, having last played on Nov. 23, when it dropped a 76-59 decision at Kansas. The Bulldogs are slated to play a pair of games prior to arriving in Las Vegas, venturing to future BIG EAST Conference member Memphis (Dec. 14) and Murray State (Dec. 16) before turning their attention to Notre Dame.