Women take on Fighting Irish

Lady Bears expect strong defense from No. 16 team

Nick Berryman | Lariat Photographer
No. 32 forward Brooklyn Pope draws a foul in Baylor’s matchup against Michigan State on Nov. 19 at the Ferrell Center. The Lady Bears won, 78-52. They face No. 16 ranked Notre Dame at 7 p.m. today in Waco.

By Matt Larsen
Sports Writer

After holding three opponents in a row under 45 points, the No. 2 Lady Bears prepare to host one of the best defensive squads they have seen this season in No. 16 University of Notre Dame at 7 p.m. today at the Ferrell Center.

“We think we are pretty athletic and quick, yet if you look at the number of steals, they have played one less basketball game than we have and they have like [125] steals to our [73],” head coach Kim Mulkey said. “For a team that mixes their defense as Notre Dame does, playing zone and man, they are just a hard-nosed, aggressive team.”

Leading the nation in steals, the Fighting Irish bring a 5-2 record to Waco where they play Baylor (7-1) for the first time in the two programs’ history.

Notre Dame is the only team in the top 25 AP or coaches poll to have two losses, but both came to Top 15 teams.

Its first slip up came against No. 13 UCLA in an 86-83 double overtime loss and the second came at No. 8 Kentucky, 81-76.

Even with the two losses, Mulkey said she believes the team probably deserves to be ranked higher.

Her squad already knows about close losses to tough teams as the Lady Bears’ only loss came on the road by one point to No. 1 Connecticut.

Baylor demonstrated its ability to win against Top 25 talent three days later when it beat No. 25 Michigan State 78-52.

The schedule once again heats up for the Lady Bears as their next three games feature two ranked opponents in No. 16 Notre Dame and No. 9 Tennessee and a dangerous Minnesota squad sandwiched in the middle of the home stand.

First, they will look to handle a Notre Dame squad hungry for a top ten upset.

“Muffet McGraw is one of the finest coaches in the country,” Mulkey said of the 29-year coach who will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of fame in 2011. “She has won a national championship; she has been to a couple of Final Fours, Sweet Sixteens. While they did lose three players from that starting lineup last year, I would venture to say that this team is as good as the one they had last year.”

The Irish return three seniors, but are led in scoring by a pair of non-senior guards.

Junior Natalie Novosel averages 17 points a game while sophomore Skylar Diggins adds 12.9.

They also depend on their ability to spread the scoring responsibility around as they have seven players averaging eight points per game or higher.

With no one on the roster taller than 6-foot-2, the Irish have no imminent post player to match up with 6-foot-8 sophomore post Brittney Griner, who has averaged nearly 30 points a pop in her last four outings.

Mulkey expects to see some mixing of different defensive sets that play to Notre Dame’s quickness, but is confident her team won’t see any big surprises.

“I don’t know that there is any team that can do something that we have not seen,” she said. “We have seen it all.”

If Notre Dame decides to put multiple defenders in and around the paint to keep Griner from getting as many looks, senior guard Melissa Jones believes the answer is simple.

“A lot of people doubling down on Brittney opens things up for perimeter shooting,” she said.

The Lady Bears currently have four players with significant minutes averaging .389 or above from 3-point land.

Jones has been the most dangerous, going 9 of 18 so far from behind the arc.

Regardless of how many defenders they put around her, Griner looks forward to being tested every time up and down the court again.

“You can’t take any one play off,” she said. “For me, I love them [the big games]. Each play is kind of back–and-forth.”