End of an era
Back to back losses to No. 16 Michigan State and Tennessee cause the Fighting Irish to drop out of the AP Top 25 poll for the first time since the end of 2006-07 season.
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Replacing five WNBA draft picks a year ago has proven to be a challenge for Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw. The new-look Irish team is going through early growing pains. They’re not the same team Irish team that many are accustomed to seeing.
They are not the same team that convincingly defeated Michigan State in last year’s NCAA tournament, nor are they the same team that rallied from a 23-point deficit to defeat Tennessee in the largest comeback of the McGraw’s career two seasons ago.
“We need to get experience. We’re going to take our lumps early,” McGraw said after the Irish 74-63 loss over then-unranked Lady Vols.
The Irish would suffer another loss three days later to Michigan State 72-69. Both Tennessee and Michigan State were without their best players. Tennessee guard Zaay Green was lost for the season after suffering an ACL tear Nov. 10 in practice. Michigan State guard Shay Colley was with the Canadian national team.
“We looked like an experienced team playing a bunch of freshmen and that’s what it was. But I think our mistakes were really inexcusable,” McGraw continued. “We can’t just keep saying that we’re young, we have to start focusing and executing and doing the things that we do at practice.”
In their last two games, the Irish have struggled to set the offensive tempo early on and defend against perimeter shooters. They trailed by as many as 18 against the Lady Vols and 13 against the Spartans. Tennessee’s Rennia Davis dominated with 33 points (5-for-9 from three) and a few days later Nia Clouden added 28 points (4-for-9 from three) for the Spartans.
“We just beat ourselves. I mean, we had so many opportunities, free throws, so many things that that we could have controlled, and we didn’t,” McGraw said regarding her teams play in the loss against Michigan State.
Rebounding and post play are still a weakness for the Irish team. Against Tennessee and Michigan State the Irish were outrebounded 94 – 58 in both games combined. Backup center Danielle Cosgrove showed some improvement over the week as she had a career-high 12 points against the Spartans and a career-high eight rebounds against the Lady Vols.
The Irish struggles continue from the charity stripe as well. In their one possession lost to the Spartans the Irish shot 18- 31 from the free-throw line. As a team, they are shooting 63.8 percent from the free-throw line this season, well below the nearly 75 percent they shot last season.
Analyzing the Irish’s offensive struggles, lack of rebounding and poor free-throw shooting, they deserved to drop out of the AP Poll, but it’s too early in the season to write the Irish off yet.
They have a lot of potential, namely with redshirt freshman Katlyn Gilbert and freshman forward Sam Brunelle. Gilbert leads the team in scoring at 17.3 points this season. She scored a team-high 19 points against Michigan State, but also coughed up eight turnovers. Brunelle is averaging 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in four games this season. Brunelle matched Gilbert with 19 points and eight rebounds. In spite of an off game, graduate transfer Destinee Walker will also be a huge contributor for the Irish.
“We have so much potential that we have yet to reach. And we do things in practice that we just need to translate over to the game,” Brunelle said. “We just need to be more fluid and consistent with each and every quarter. Like I was saying, like, we can’t just fight for the last two quarters.”
Only time will tell if the Irish will regain their ranking this season, and they with have the opportunity to make a statement in the coming weeks against ranked opponents in No. 21 Michigan (11/23) and No. 3 Connecticut (12/8).
Despite the terrible week on the court, the Irish were able to secure the nation’s No. 3 ranked recruiting class according to ESPN. Next season the Irish will bring in Amirah Abdur-Rahim, Alli Campbell, Alasia Hayes, Natalija Marshall and Maddy Westbeld.
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