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Thursday, June 13, 2024
The Observer

Women's Basketball: Streaking Irish to battle Pitt

Wrapping up one of the toughest stretches of the year with a rout of Rutgers Monday, the No. 3 Irish welcome a Pittsburgh team desperate for a conference win in the last month of the season.

After playing at such a high level of basketball the last two weeks, Notre Dame's biggest concern heading into Saturday's matchup is maintaining a controlled style of play to match the Panthers' skill. Irish coach Muffet McGraw said the loss of any competitive edge will not be a factor, as it only takes one misstep to spoil a promising season.

"Every game is important for us," McGraw said. "We are coming off a four-game stretch that was kind of brutal for us on the schedule. The first thing we do is get a little rest and get ready to head into the next stretch. We're real focused on what we have to do. It's great when you can come off a win and still see the things you have to get better at."

While traditionally a conference powerhouse, Pittsburgh (12-9, 1-7 Big East) has been plagued by injuries this season and is struggling just to stay in the playoff picture. The Panthers rank dead last in defense, giving up 70.1 points per game while forcing fewer than 15 turnovers.

If the numbers hold true, Notre Dame (20-1, 7-1 Big East) should run away with its sixth consecutive conference victory. But this is the Big East, where the only safe bet is a Connecticut blowout.

"They've got some really good players," McGraw said. "[Junior guard Jania] Sims is playing really well, she hits a lot of shots, and they have a really big team. They rely on Sims and [junior guard Shayla] Scott quite a bit on the perimeter. They have veteran, returning players from last year, and they're always a tough game for us to play."

Sims and Scott direct a Panthers offense that can run up the score in a hurry. Averaging 15.4 points per game, Sims is an explosive player that thrives on defensive mismatches, while Scott provides an excellent complement as a knock-down shooter.

But where Pittsburgh has struggled mightily on defense, the Irish are thriving, averaging 12 steals and forcing more than 23 turnovers per game. Led by the quick feet and aggressive style of senior guard Ashley Barlow and freshman guard Skylar Diggins, solid team defense has propelled the Irish to third overall in the conference.

"Ashley Barlow and Skylar are our two best defenders," McGraw said. "They just lead the charge. They're back and forth with No. 1 and 2 in steals on the team. They really do a pretty good job in our practice, and they usually guard the other team's best player."

The Panthers should have their hands full guarding one of the deepest backcourts in the country, but junior forward Becca Bruszewski gives the Irish an additional dimension on offense. If Bruszewski's 13-point performance against Rutgers Monday is any indication of the future, Pittsburgh's noticeably bigger centers will be tested early and often.

"We're just such a balanced team, we don't really talk about that," McGraw said. "Each particular week different people are going to be open, different players are going to get hot.

I'm really happy with the way Becca has responded. She was key in that run we had in the second half, broke the game open for us."

The Irish tip-off with Pittsburgh Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Purcell Pavilion.