Three keys to the women's national title for Notre Dame Fighting Irish
DENVER -- How do you beat Goliath? You engage her. That was the buzzword among Notre Dame players and coaches when asked about the game plan for the NCAA championship game against Baylor on Tuesday night. The phrase "engage Griner" came up about as often as "excited to be a Jet" did with Tim Tebow during his introductory news conference.
Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey admits that she sees Baylor stars Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims in her sleep these days. As the team's primary scout for the Lady Bears, Ivey has watched footage of Baylor's last eight games and was about to download Baylor's five-point win over UConn last December when she stopped to chat with a reporter. "What can you do with a 6-8 post player besides hope she misses," Ivey said of Griner. "But Odyssey Sims went off on us when we played them. She's an amazing guard, fast and a great defender. We have to make sure that when she gets looks, we are contesting those looks because she can go off."
Both Griner and Sims went off last November in Baylor's 94-81 win over Notre Dame in Waco. But that loss came in the Irish's fourth game of the season and they believe they are a much better team now. Notre Dame has competed this season with a professional urgency given it has two seniors (guards Fraderica Miller and Natalie Novosel) and two other players who have already received their undergraduate degrees (guard Brittany Mallory and forward Devereaux Peters). Like Baylor, the Fighting Irish believe that they should have won a title last season but gave a great opportunity away. Unlike Baylor (39-0), they have lost three games this year and are the decided underdog.
But there is a road to the title and below we make the case for the Irish.
With all the attention on Griner -- and that attention is deserved given her 32 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks against Notre Dame in November ---- multiple Notre Dame coaches said the key to beating Baylor is figuring out a way to occupy Baylor's sensational sophomore point guard. Sims did not start against Notre Dame (she was benched by Baylor coach Kim Mulkey for disciplinary reasons) but still scored 25 points, had six steals and harassed Skylar Diggins into seven turnovers. Sims is the best on-ball defender in the country and plays with edge and attitude. "Odyssey is what makes them go," said Diggins. "She does a great job getting to the line, and she's 40 percent from the thee-point line, so you have to honor that. She's also good at getting to the basket. She's a terrific defender. She gets steals. She's going to be aggressive. We need to make sure we pay attention to her. We definitely have to be up and try to pressure her, and not give her as easy looks to pass."
Sims attempted 14 free throws against Notre Dame and had a number of breakaway steals for baskets. Her stat line is why Notre Dame coaches have harped on protecting the ball Tuesday night, especially in the backcourt. Diggins will guard Sims for the majority of the game, but Notre Dame also has a very good on-ball defender in senior reserve guard Miller, who might get some minutes to give Sims a different look. But the matchup between Sims and Diggins -- both are lefthanded point guards and both play with swag -- should be fantastic theater.
There is a school of thought that this Baylor team is impossible to beat the first time around because you cannot simulate Griner's impact on the game. "I think until you see her close up in a game, you really can't even appreciate how big she is," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "I think for us having had that experience and knowing what to expect, it does definitely make going into the game a little less of a surprise factor. We know what she's going to do, and we can look at that film and see the few things that did work. There weren't that many. But we can try to look -- we're running some different stuff now -- and it will be interesting to see how that works."
In its semifinal loss to Baylor, Stanford attempted to pull Griner away from the basket and sent cutters (mostly guards) for layup attempts. It worked at times. Notre Dame wants to drive the ball into the paint, hope Griner leaves her feet, and then kick to the wings for open looks. Since the Irish are worried about the undersized Peters (6-foot-2 getting) into foul trouble guarding Griner solo, they'll defend her in different ways, including quick double teams. Sophomore center Natalie Achonwa (6-3) will certainly get a look at Griner. It's also possible reserve center Markisha Wright (who played 13 minutes against Baylor in the last game) will also see some time.
Notre Dame is one of the few teams in the country that can run with Baylor because the coltish Peters is more like a forward than a center. The Irish must score in transition to win -- they also must get to the foul line -- so look for them to be aggressive in transition with their four-guard offense. But the offensive firepower exists: Notre Dame is the nation's second-ranked scoring team (79.3 points per game) with four players averaging double figures.
The Irish used the painful memory of last season's title game loss -- in which they led in the second half -- to motivate them all season. The score of the game sits in the corner of the locker room and players repeatedly shouted out "15:52" during workouts, referring to the turning point. It's been a powerful tonic, and the Irish gutted out a win in the semifinals over UConn when they could have easily folded after a terrible final four minutes. Baylor has yet to be in a tight game late this season so the pressure should be on the Lady Bears if it's a one or two possession game late. "I think when you're undefeated you have a lot of confidence that you're playing with, but at the same time it's just a little bit of pressure of knowing that you've never lost," said McGraw. "And when it gets down to the end of the game, you hope they feel that pressure."
Baylor is the favorite, and rightly so. But all of Baylor's stars return next season. Notre Dame's time is now, and that urgency has been a powerful motivator for the Irish.