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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Irish enter heart of ACC schedule

Halfway through the ACC conference schedule, the fun begins now for No. 3 Notre Dame.

Starting with Monday night’s road clash with perennial power Duke, the Irish (20-1, 8-0 ACC) will enter a three-week long stretch in which they will face the very best the conference has to offer.

Over the course of six games, Notre Dame will face the five teams closest behind it in the ACC standings. Three of those matchups will come on the road, beginning tonight with one of the toughest road environments in the country — Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“It’s a little different for the women, but it’s a tough place to play because you’re on bleachers and there’s fans right behind your bench,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “So it’s very close, which makes it a tough place to play.”

Graduate student guard Madison Cable, left, searches for a  teammate during Notre Dame’s 79-66 win over Tennessee on Jan. 18.
Grace Tourville | The Observer
Graduate student guard Madison Cable, left, searches for a teammate during Notre Dame’s 79-66 win over Tennessee on Jan. 18.

And on the court, the Blue Devils (16-6, 5-3) have presented a significant challenge to the Irish ever since Notre Dame joined the conference for the 2013-2014 season. The two teams have faced off five times since then, and although the Irish have won all five, their average margin of victory in those games (13.4 points) is well off the team’s overall mark over the last two and a half seasons (21.8).

Just last season, Duke nearly knocked out Notre Dame in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, although the Irish were able to pull out a 55-49 victory. This year, the Blue Devils return three starters from that game, and all three stand 6-foot-1 or above. All told, eight Blue Devils are six feet or more, compared to just five for Notre Dame.

“They’ve got terrific size,” McGraw said of Duke. “Last game I think they started [6-foot-3, 6-foot-3, and 6-foot-2], so they’ve got really good size, and they’re a really good team that we’ve battled with ever since joining the conference, so I think it’ll be a really good game.”

The Irish travel to Durham, North Carolina, coming off their worst offensive game of the season, a 54-42 win over Georgia Tech. It was Notre Dame’s lowest point total in a win since 2006, and the team shot just 39 percent from the field, 13 percent from 3-point territory and 42 percent from the free throw line.

“We just needed to be a little more patient,” McGraw said of the team’s offensive struggles in the win. “We needed to execute a little bit more, run a little more offense. We were quick-shooting the ball when we could have worked it around a little more.”

Still, McGraw said she was pleased with how her team battled back and “got the bad game out of their system” moving forward.

Notre Dame will have to find a cure for its shooting woes quickly against Duke, who boasts a top-25 defense in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. The Blue Devils also rank in the top 35 in the nation in rebounding margin and blocked shots per game, led by sophomore forward/guard Azurá Stevens, junior forward Oderah Chidom and graduate student center/forward Amber Henson.

Meanwhile, the Irish will be hampered by illness. Graduate student guard and leading scorer Madison Cable was dealing with congestion throughout the Georgia Tech game, while sophomore forward Kathryn Westbeld had flu-like symptoms that limited her minutes. Both illnesses will likely linger through the week, McGraw said.

Tonight’s matchup with Duke will be broadcast on ESPN as part of its “Big Monday” program. Three of Notre Dame’s next six games will be nationally broadcast, and with that exposure, McGraw said her team will be facing some of its biggest challenges of the season.

“February’s going to be really tough. We’re playing the tough half of the league now. We just got to be ready,” McGraw said.

Duke and Notre Dame tip off at 6 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina.