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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame continues road trip at Michigan

Wedged between a victory over defending national champions South Carolina in Florida and a trip to Storrs, Connecticut, to meet No. 1 Connecticut, No. 3 Notre Dame is on the road again, playing No. 22 Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

The Irish (6-0) defeated the Gamecocks (6-1) 92-85 on Sunday, erasing a 28-18 first-quarter deficit early in the second quarter and holding onto the lead for the remainder of the game. The win means the Irish will be third in the AP poll when they take on the Huskies (5-0), but before the Irish can play their arch-rivals, the Wolverines (4-1) await. McGraw said it could be easy to get carried away after the win over South Carolina, but she is ensuring her team stays grounded and focuses on improving every day.

“Expectations are always high for us, and this is a big win but it’s November and we have to temper it and look at the important things, which is that we’re getting better every game,” McGraw said. “So we’ve got to be focused and ready to play every game, ready to play Michigan.”

Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer
Irish sophomore guard Jackie Young dribbles up the court during Notre Dame's 121-65 win over Mount St. Mary's on Nov. 11 at Purcell Pavilion.

Michigan was comprehensively beaten 74-49 when they faced another top ACC opponent in Louisville, but a strong defense has earned the Wolverines four wins, as Michigan’s opponents have shot just .365 from the field so far this year.

The Wolverines are led by senior guard Katelynn Flaherty, who currently sits second in the nation in points per game with 25.8, having scored at least 20 points in every game this year so far, while making 17 out of 39 three-point attempts.

While injuries to senior forward Kathryn Westbeld have meant the Irish starting lineup has been a four-guard lineup for every game this year, the Wolverines play much bigger, with junior center Hallie Thome and forwards freshman Hailey Brown and senior Jillian Dunston also starting for Michigan alongside Flaherty. That forward-heavy lineup has contributed to the team’s strong defensive record this year as well as its average rebounding margin per game of plus-7.2, but has also led to a lack of assists, as Flaherty leads the team with four per game while the team has recorded 60 total assists to 96 turnovers.

The game is the sixth consecutive game away from home for the Irish as part of a seven-game road trip, with the team also travelling to Western Kentucky and Oregon State before three games at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida. McGraw’s team went on a similar road trip last season, playing six consecutive games away from home, and lost the penultimate game of that stretch to North Carolina State, 70-62, in their only conference loss of the season. McGraw said the stretch has been tough so far, but three tournament games in one site ensured that it was not as hard to adjust to as a streak of seven different games on seven opposition courts.

“Last year we did it too … but the thing is you don’t know what the ACC schedule and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge is going to be until the rest of the schedule is already made,” McGraw said. “We hoped maybe this game would be at home, but it’s another road one instead.

“When you play in a tournament like this, three games in one neutral site, that’s not like three real road games. It’s been a crazy schedule, but hopefully we’ll get through the last two games.”

The Irish success at the Gulf Coast Showcase came thanks to the work of junior guard Arike Ogunbowale and sophomore guard Jackie Young. Ogunbowale leads the Irish in scoring this season with 18.8 points per game, while Young won Gulf Coast Showcase MVP honors and ACC player of the week, averaging 17.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game this season while shooting 50 percent from the field. The 92 point total against the Gamecocks highlighted the offensive success the Irish have had this season, scoring an average of 86 points per game so far. McGraw highlighted Young, who leads the team with 31 free throws made on 35 attempts, as a major reason for the Irish success so far this year.

“I thought this summer that she really improved driving the ball,” McGraw said. “She’s just so strong, I’m pretty sure she must lead the team in three-point plays, she finishes so well and that’s what she did just about every game down in Florida. She’s shooting really well from the free-throw line, shooting really well from the floor, her offensive rebounding’s been great, getting putbacks, she’s been really impressive and she’s playing great defense too.

“I talked to her at the end of last year and said, ‘You can do more, you don’t need to defer to the rest of the team,’ and then reminded her again after the Western Kentucky game. She’s so unselfish that it’s hard for her, and she’s still throwing great passes, but know she knows she can play that big scoring role.”

The Irish and the Wolverines will meet tonight at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tip-off is at 6 p.m.