Dec. 11, 2007
#17/17 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8-1 / 0-0 BIG EAST) vs. Valparaiso Crusaders (3-5 / 0-0 Horizon League)
DATE: December 12, 2007
No. 17 Irish Return Home To Face Valparaiso
Notre Dame (8-1) picked up its sixth consecutive win last Saturday with a 61-48 victory at Purdue. It was the first win in 10 career visits to Mackey Arena, but it didn't come easy, as the Irish had to overcome an eight-point second-half deficit, shooting 51.7 percent in the final 20 minutes and going on a 17-5 run to take down the Boilermakers.
Sophomore guard Ashley Barlow played a pivotal role in that second-half rally, scoring 19 of her career-high 22 points after halftime, including three three-pointers in the game-changing run. Senior guard Charel Allen added a balanced effort with 10 points, eight rebounds and a game-high six assists, while junior guard Lindsay Schrader grabbed 10 rebounds.
A Quick Look At The Fighting Irish
Last year, the Irish learned quickly that respect is something that isn't handed to you, but rather earned on the court. It's also a quality that takes time to develop and doesn't come from trophy cases or record books. So although Notre Dame was tabbed fifth in the preseason BIG EAST Conference balloting, it's not a great concern to McGraw and her charges. Instead, they focus on the things they can control and prefer to let the outside world judge them when the season is over.
This year could prove to be unlike any in recent memory for Notre Dame. For one, the Irish will roll out some impressive depth, going virtually two-deep at every floor position. In addition, Notre Dame's new offensive system (a Princeton-based set with four guards and a post) continues to evolve, building upon last year's 70.1 point-per-game average that was its highest since the 2000-01 NCAA national championship season.
Senior guard Charel Allen is the top returning scorer and rebounder for the Irish, leading the team in both categories last year (17.0 ppg., 6.2 rpg.). She also was a first-team all-BIG EAST and WBCA honorable mention All-America selection, and was a finalist for the 2007 USA U21 World Championship Team that struck gold this past summer in Moscow.
Allen's backcourt partner and classmate is point guard Tulyah Gaines. Now in her second full season at the helm of the Notre Dame offense, the speedy Gaines averaged 9.6 points per game along with team highs of 3.9 assists and 2.0 steals per contest. She also is a two-year team captain who commands instant respect from teammates, coaches and opponents.
The Irish will benefit from the return of junior guard Lindsay Schrader, who missed the entire 2006-07 season with a torn ACL in her right knee. Schrader, who retains three years of athletic eligibility, was Notre Dame's second-leading scorer (10.5 ppg.) and top rebounder (5.4 rpg.) as a rookie in 2005-06 and will look to regain that form this season.
Last year saw Notre Dame break new ground by becoming the first school ever to put three players on the BIG EAST All-Freshman Team. Guards Ashley Barlow (10.3 ppg., 5.4 rpg.) and Melissa Lechlitner (6.3 ppg., 2.7 apg.) will provide a superb complement to the veteran Allen-Gaines tandem, while center Erica Williamson (6.1 ppg., 5.3 rpg., 1.3 bpg.) showed flashes of potential throughout her rookie season and is poised for increased development this year.
Headlining a three-player freshman class (ranked 11th nationally by Blue Star Basketball) is Devereaux Peters, a smooth 6-2 forward who was a consensus All-American as a senior last year at national powerhouse Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill. Fellow post Becca Bruszewski (Valparaiso, Ind.) finished third in last season's Indiana Miss Basketball voting and was a perennial all-state pick. And, guard Brittany Mallory (Baltimore, Md.) offers a perimeter shooting threat, as well as a cerebral player who will mesh well in the Irish offensive system.
A Quick Look At Valparaiso
The Crusaders got off to a rocky start with five consecutive losses, all on the road and three against teams that were ranked or receiving votes in the national polls. Since then, Valparaiso has recovered nicely with three wins in a row, most recently taking down North Texas, 73-61 at home this past Saturday.
Junior guard Agnieszka Kulaga has been a major factor in the Crusaders' recent surge, including a 26-point, eight-rebound effort (on 10-of-15 shooting) against North Texas. Junior forward (and South Bend native) Aimee Litka added 15 points and six rebounds, and classmate Sarah Ott chipped in 11 points.
Kulaga averages a team-high 13.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and also boasts a .513 field goal percentage (.474 from the three-point line). Litka is second in scoring (11.8 ppg.) and third in rebounding (4.4 rpg.), while canning a team-high 14 three-pointers on .378 shooting.
Head coach Keith Freeman is in his 14th season at Valparaiso with a 232-157 (.596) record. He has a career mark of 361-204 (.639) in 20 seasons of coaching, with an 0-10 record against Notre Dame.
The Notre Dame-Valparaiso Series
Notre Dame has won each of the previous 20 games in the series with Valparaiso, including all nine prior matchups at home.
The Last Time Notre Dame And Valparaiso Met
Charel Allen returned to double figures after a two-game offensive dry spell, registering team highs of 18 points and eight rebounds, the latter total just one off her (then) career best. Melissa D'Amico chipped in 12 points and eight rebounds despite playing much of the second half in foul trouble. Off the bench, Ashley Barlow continued to provide a spark, contributing 12 points, six rebounds and a career-high-tying four assists at Valparaiso.
Betsy Rietema led all scorers with 22 points for the Crusaders, while Agnieszka Kulaga was the only other player in double digits for the hosts, scoring 10 points.
Playing its first road game since a memorable final-minute comeback win at Michigan on Dec. 1, Notre Dame (8-3) looked sluggish, turning the ball over on four of its first five possessions. However, as would be the case most of the night, the Irish relied on their defense to overcome their offensive shortcomings, forcing Valparaiso to miss 16 of its first 18 shots from the floor (a .111 field goal percentage). Barlow came in early and dropped in a pair of buckets to help ignite a 10-2 run that put Notre Dame in front, 15-7 just past the midway point of the first half.
Valparaiso (4-6) came back with eight unanswered points to level the score, but the Irish rebuilt their eight-point lead later in the period, going in front by a 28-20 count on Allen's jumper with a minute to go. But, the Crusaders trimmed their deficit in half by the break, as Sarah Ott knocked down two free throws and Sanna Helenius beat the halftime horn with a baseline jumper.
Notre Dame tried again to break free with four of the first five points in the second half. And again, Valparaiso had a response, as Carrie Myers drained three-pointers on consecutive possessions and Rietema added a triple of her own to give the hosts their first lead since the opening minute of play, 36-35 with 14:24 left. Myers buried her third trey of the second half less than a minute later to give the Crusaders (as it turned out) their largest lead of the night at 39-37, but Gray came back with a three-pointer of her own, rattling in a bomb from the corner at the 13:06 mark to put the Irish in front.
Gray's three sparked a 9-2 run, a spurt that Valparaiso countered with its own 8-2 charge, leaving the hosts back in the lead by a scant 49-48 margin with 8:26 remaining. However, on the next trip down, Allen found all cotton on her 15-foot jumper and Notre Dame never trailed again. Still, the Irish couldn't quite shake the pesky Crusaders, leading 57-53 inside the final two minutes when Rietema single-handedly brought her team back with six consecutive points, hitting a foul shot and a transition layup, then following D'Amico's putback with an old-fashioned three-point play that knotted the score at 59-all with 25.3 seconds left.
Notre Dame called timeout before Rietema's tying free throw, setting up its play for the final possession. The initial look was to go to Allen, but when the Valparaiso defense collapsed on her, the lanky Irish wing smartly found a cutting Gray on the right block and Crusader forward Aimee Litka could do nothing but commit the foul to prevent an uncontested layup with 1.2 seconds to go. Gray then stepped to the stripe, made her first charity, and then after Valparaiso burned its final timeout, she missed her second free throw, allowing the Crusaders no chance to get a shot off before time expired.
The Last Time Notre Dame And Valparaiso Met At The Joyce Center
Betsy Rietema scored 11 points and Tamra Braun added 10 to lead Valparaiso (5-5).
Notre Dame had 19 turnovers, but held the Crusaders to 36 percent shooting. The Irish outscored Valparaiso 38-14 in the paint and shot 50 percent from the field.
Notre Dame used a 10-0 early run to take a 12-2 lead and closed the half with a 9-4 run to take a 30-18 halftime lead. The Irish led by as many as 17 points in the second half.
Schrader and Charel Allen each had seven rebounds as Notre Dame outrebounded the Crusaders 37-22. The Irish reserves, led by LaVere and Allen, who had eight points, also outscored the Crusaders' bench, 24-9.
Other Notre Dame-Valparaiso Series Tidbits
Notre Dame vs. The Horizon League
Aside from its rivalry with Valparaiso, Notre Dame played the vast majority of its other Horizon League opponents back when the Irish were members of that circuit from 1988-95 (then known as the Midwestern Collegiate Conference). In fact, the Irish have played only two Horizon League schools since leaving to join the BIG EAST Conference in 1995 -- they downed Butler three times from 1997-99, and most recently defeated Cleveland State, 107-65, on Nov. 26, 2002 at the Joyce Center.
It's also the first time since the 2000-01 national championship season that the Irish have logged at least five 30-point wins in a single season. That year, Notre Dame collected a school-record 10 30-point victories, but only four of those came in the first nine games.
What's more, the Irish recently had a streak of four consecutive 30-point wins from Nov. 20-Dec. 2. The last time Notre Dame did that was Jan. 20-30, 1999, when the Irish had four straight 30-point victories, all during BIG EAST Conference play -- at Seton Hall (87-47), home vs. St. John's (99-60), at Syracuse (94-61) and at Providence (97-59).
Put A Tiger In Your Tank
The Irish currently rank second in the BIG EAST Conference in scoring (and fifth in the country) at 81.6 points per game, having tallied at least 77 points in seven of their eight wins. What's more, Notre Dame also has the third-highest scoring average after nine games in program history, topped only by the 1995-96 and 1998-99 squads (82.0 ppg.), the latter of which went on to post a single-season school record with an 81.0-ppg. scoring average.
Notre Dame also ranks second in the conference (and fifth in the nation) in scoring margin, outpointing its opposition by 25.1 points per night.
Spreading The Wealth
Notre Dame also has had at least three double-figure scorers in all but one game (Purdue) and has fielded five double-figure scorers in four of the past six games, including three in a row from Nov. 20-27. It's believed to be the first time in school history (and certainly the first time in the Muffet McGraw era) the Irish have pulled off that feat of three straight games with five double-digit scorers, although records are incomplete prior to the 1983-84 season.
Protecting The Pill
The Irish took ball protection to a new level in their loss at No. 3 Maryland on Nov. 16. Notre Dame set a school record with only three turnovers against the Terrapins, with two of those giveaways coming on offensive fouls. The previous school record for fewest turnovers was six, set on Feb. 12, 2006 at DePaul.
With only three turnovers, it probably comes as no surprise that Maryland did not register a steal against Notre Dame. However, what is surprising is that it was the first time in the 31-year history of the Irish program that an opponent did not record a steal against Notre Dame. Several opponents had only one steal vs. the Irish, with the most recent being Boston College on March 19, 2006 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament (played at West Lafayette, Ind.).
Keeping It On The Plus Side
For the year, the Irish rank second in the BIG EAST (and second nationally) with a 1.39 assist-to-turnover ratio, trailing only second-ranked Connecticut (1.58). Notre Dame also has assisted on 53.9 percent of its field goals this year (159 assists on 295 baskets), ranking fourth in the conference and 16th in the country with 17.67 assists per game.
Off And Running
Even in its lone defeat at third-ranked Maryland, Notre Dame made a statement early with a 10-0 run in the first five minutes of action and led by as many as five points in the first half before the Terrapins rallied back for the win.
Going Into Lockdown
That's the fourth-lowest opponent scoring average through seven games for Notre Dame, third-lowest since elevating to Division I in 1980-81, and second-lowest of the Muffet McGraw era. In fact, the only Irish squad in the last 26 seasons that got off to a better defensive start was the 2000-01 national championship team (53.1 ppg.).
(Nearly) Crowded House
No Easy Road
With the addition of third-ranked Maryland to the docket in the Preseason WNIT semifinals, the Irish now will face four of the top six teams (including the top three) in the latest Associated Press poll. Still to come this season are No. 1 Tennessee (Jan. 5 at the Joyce Center), No. 2 Connecticut (Jan. 27 at the Joyce Center) and No. 6 Rutgers (Feb. 19 in Piscataway, N.J.). The top three teams in the poll have combined to win three of the past four national championships, with Tennessee currently holding the hardware after defeating Rutgers in last year's title game.
Leave The Driving To Us
Irish Fans Crave A Big Mac Attack
This season's burger watch already is at five, as the Irish have hit the 88-point mark in exhibition wins over Southern Indiana and Hillsdale, as well as regular-season victories over Miami (Ohio), Boston College and Canisius.
It's probably also not a surprise that the Notre Dame player with the most "Big Mac baskets" this season has the same initials as that of the tasty burger -- freshman guard Brittany Mallory, who has sent the crowd home happy (and presumably with full bellies) three times.
Next Game: IUPUI
The Jaguars (3-7) are in the midst of their own exam break and have lost four in a row after splitting their first six games. IUPUI will travel to Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 19 before returning home to face Notre Dame.