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Friday, Feb. 23, 2024
The Observer

Irish reinvent identity on the defensive end

This past Monday, No. 1 Connecticut did what it does best and blew out No. 2 South Carolina, 66-54, on the road, never trailing the entire way.

That result means, in all likelihood, No. 3 Notre Dame will move up to take the Gamecocks spot as the second-best team in the country. The Irish (23-1, 11-0 ACC) have also lost to the Huskies, but they did so by only 10 points, in Storrs, Conn., on Dec. 5, and without the ACC preseason player of the year, sophomore forward Brianna Turner. So they certainly deserve the No. 2 spot.

It's a place the Irish have been often in the past few years, but the way in which they have reached it is decidedly different from Muffet McGraw's previous squads. Over the past six seasons, Notre Dame has ranked in the top 11 nationally in scoring offense but never in that range on defense. Led by stars such as Skylar Diggins, Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd, the Irish have been an offensive juggernaut that also played sound, though never spectacular, defense.

But 2016 has told a new story. Since the New Year, Notre Dame is allowing just 53 points per game and has yet to allow any opponent to score more than 66, which has shot it to the top of the ACC in scoring defense in conference games. If the Irish are able to keep that 53-point average up, it will be their best conference mark in more than a decade.

Irish sophomore forward Brianna Turner surveys the court during Notre Dame’s 82-46 win over North Carolina State on Thursday. Turner has anchored the Irish defensively, averaging 3.3 blocks per game.
Irish sophomore forward Brianna Turner surveys the court during Notre Dame’s 82-46 win over North Carolina State on Thursday. Turner has anchored the Irish defensively, averaging 3.3 blocks per game.

Even McGraw has acknowledged her players are doing things on the defensive end her other teams just didn't. After Notre Dame topped North Carolina State, 82-46, last Thursday, she praised her team’s effort.

“I looked the other day and we're first in the conference. That's astounding. We’re normally up there offensively, but it’s a nice change to be up there defensively,” McGraw said. “It means we’re really working hard. And that’s where you see the team chemistry, on the defensive end.”

The reason for Notre Dame's newfound dominance on defense, McGraw said, is the player who was missing when the Irish lost to Connecticut: Turner.

After missing six games due to a shoulder injury, Turner has come back with a vengeance for Notre Dame, ranking first on the team in points per game, rebounds per game and blocks. Indeed, she has swatted 60 shots in just 18 games, ranking her sixth in the nation in blocks per game.

“Brianna certainly is huge. The difference when she's not there, the games she missed was almost a 20-point swing,” McGraw said. “When you have that shot blocker back there, it gives you a little more confidence in your defense.”

But Turner is not the only Irish player excelling on the defensive side. Graduate student guard Madison Cable has enjoyed a breakout year offensively and is tied with Turner for the team lead in points, but her defensive work has been solid as well, as she ranks second on the squad in steals and blocks and third in rebounds. Freshman guard Marina Mabrey has also swiped the ball 44 times.

What’s interesting is these three players are also among Notre Dame’s biggest offensive weapons. While no one can question the defensive effort of Loyd, McBride or Diggins, it is unusual for the Irish to have so many players that are equally effective on both sides of the court.

It's been said time and time again over the past couple years, but Notre Dame began this season looking ripe for a fall. Five straight Final Fours notwithstanding, the departure of Loyd last season was a massive blow to the team’s offensive firepower, and the loss of freshman guard Ali Patberg and junior forward Taya Reimer cannot have done anything positive for its morale. While the Irish had too much talent to completely crumble, a third consecutive national championship game seemed unlikely.

Yet once again, the team has reinvented itself. Though it took some time, the players are gelling, and although the Irish are not blowing out opponents like they have done in years past, they have built a solid two-way team that can defend with the best of them. Hope springs eternal for Notre Dame.