FORT WAYNE – The Notre Dame women’s basketball team will have a chance to see how far it has come in a month and how much work it has left to do to return to another NCAA tournament championship game tonight when the No. 5 Irish (5-0) play host to No. 3 Baylor (6-1).
It is a good measuring stick, coach Muffet McGraw said. Obviously, (guard Odyssey) Sims didn’t play against Stanford (in Baylor’s 71-69 loss Nov. 16), so to me they are still the best team in the country.
It is a chance to play a team that everyone expects to be in the national championship game, and to see where we are on Dec. 5. It’s not a game that is going to the day after proclaim us as a Final Four candidate or not. I think it is going to tell us just where we are now, and what we need to do to continue to improve.
McGraw said she had hoped the Irish would be better than they are at this point in the season as the program works in three new starters.
Notre Dame returned only guards Skylar Diggins, who averages 14 points, and Kayla McBride, who averages 14.5 points, from last season. Junior forward Natalie Achonwa, junior guard Ariel Backer, sophomore guard Madison Cable and freshman guard Jewell Lloyd have been used in the starting lineup
We are still very much a work in progress, McGraw said.
Baylor is not a work in progress. The Bears returned nearly their entire team from the squad that beat the Irish for last season’s national title.
And the Bears still have one of the most imposing players in women’s college basketball in Brittney Griner. The 6-foot-8 center is averaging 21 points, six rebounds and 2.1 blocks.
Last season, Griner roughed up Notre Dame twice. She scored 26 points and had 13 rebounds in Baylor’s 80-61 win in the title game and had 32 points and 14 rebounds in a 94-81 win in the preseason WNIT.
You can’t stop her, McGraw said. We almost always had two people on her last year, and occasionally we had three, and she still scored. We don’t have the kind of size that we can really just keep throwing big bodies at her. Stanford did have a lot of size, they had a lot of size on the bench, and we don’t. We won’t be able to use that.
Notre Dame also will not be able to rely on experience as it faces a ranked team for the first time since opening the season with a 57-51 win over then-No. 19 Ohio State.
It’s a young a team versus a veteran team, McGraw said. They’ve got everybody back. They’ve been playing together going on two, sometimes three years already. They’re in midseason form. Whereas for us, it is youth versus experience. We hope that our youth is up to the challenge.