The Irish seemingly right the ship
Following a week of adversity for a program that fell out of the AP Poll for the first time since 2007, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish showed the country that their early season struggles won’t define their season. The Irish — who lost to unranked Tennessee and No. 16 Michigan State before sneaking by Toledo at home — came into a raucous Crisler Center on Saturday afternoon and defeated No. 21 Michigan, 76-72.
Notre Dame used a 19-11 fourth quarter to outlast the previously unbeaten Wolverines. This was arguably Michigan’s first “test” of the young season, having already defeated Western Michigan, Bradley, Kent State and used a fourth quarter comeback to outlast Akron. For Notre Dame, this was much needed leading up the Cancun Challenge where the Irish will three games in three days from Thursday to Saturday.
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Here are three main takeaways from the game:
The Irish able to rebound from last week’s adversity
In the last matchup between these two teams, the third-ranked Irish handily defeated No. 22 Michigan in 2017, 83-63. This time, Notre Dame entered the contest unranked for the first week since the 2006-2007 season — unfamiliar territory for a program that won a national championship just two seasons ago.
The Irish were reeling coming into Ann Arbor, having dropped two home games and just barely defeating Toledo. It might’ve been easy to dismiss Notre Dame’s chances for a successful season after this discouraging stretch of games, but with one major effort on Saturday, the Irish told the country that they’re not letting a difficult week define their season. It took a standout performance by Destinee Walker along with 13 points from Anaya Peoples off the bench to push Notre Dame past No. 21 Michigan in Ann Arbor, 76-72.
“I think it gives us great confidence to be able to come in here and beat a ranked team on the road,” said Notre Dame Head Coach Muffet McGraw. “I thought that falling out of the poll was a really good thing for us, I think you have to earn what you get and this team hadn’t earned anything yet.”
“It was tough losing games at home, but we’re just learning.”
The Irish fell behind by as many 11 in the second quarter before gradually cutting the deficit to one by halftime. The Wolverines outscored Notre Dame by three in the third quarter before a 7:30 scoring drought in the fourth let the Irish pull ahead when it mattered it most, and the visitors escaped with a win.
Though Notre Dame was able to assert their dominance over the Wolverines two season ago, Michigan has steadily improved its recruiting along with regular and postseason success since the matchup in November 2017. Coach McGraw has tremendous respect for how Michigan Coach Kim Barnes Arico has brought national respect and relevance to Michigan’s women’s basketball program.
“I think [Barnes Arico]’s a really good coach,” McGraw said. “I think they have a really good team, I think this is a team that should… get them back to the NCAA tournament. I think they’ll be really tough in the Big Ten.”
Destinee Walker is for real
The graduate transfer from North Carolina turned in a season-high 27 points, making clutch basket after basket during all four quarters of her team’s victory. Walker had 12 points at halftime on 4-for-6 shooting, including 3-for-4 from behind the arc. The guard added nine more points in the third period and six in the fourth, including two free throws to make the Irish lead insurmountable in the waning seconds of the game.
“[Walker] was aggressive, attacking,” said McGraw. “She’s been a little reluctant to shoot it at times this year and so tonight she really wanted the ball, so it was good to see.”
Walker undoubtedly can score, and showed as much when she was a Tarheel — her career high came in her freshman season, when she recorded 32 points against Florida A&M. This is Walker’s first full season of action since 2016-17 as a sophomore, as the final years of her career with North Carolina were hampered by several injuries.
Walker’s afternoon was also highlighted by her efficiency from the field, shooting 9-for-14 overall and connecting on five of her eight attempts from three-point range. She had entered the game shooting 36% from the field overall and just 24% from downtown. With limited depth — Notre Dame played just two players off its bench on Saturday — the Irish will count on similar performances going forward from the graduate transfer.
Kayla Robbins and Naz Hillmon make Michigan an elite rebounding team
Kayla Robbins is already having a career season in this her senior year at Michigan, averaging 11.4 points — nearly six points more than last year and second on this year’s team — and just over six rebounds per game. Robbins provides a secondary interior presence next to Naz Hillmon, Michigan’s leading scorer and rebounder.
On Saturday, Robbins took her performance on the boards to another level. While Hillmon’s stat line was most eye-opening — the sophomore recorded 17 points and 16 rebounds — Robbins turned in a career high 12 rebounds to go with her 11 points.
“[Robbins] was outstanding,” Michigan Coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “We really challenged her this week to get a double-double and to be a great rebounder and I thought she was really a great rebounder for us tonight.”
Overall, Michigan dominated on the boards Saturday, outrebounding Notre Dame 53-24 overall. While the Wolverines held a 26-19 advantage on the defensive glass, they grabbed 27 offensive rebounds compared to just five for the Irish. This continues a season-long trend for the home team — on average, Michigan is outrebounding their opponents 44-30. Rebounding is a positive the Wolverines can extract in the midst of a narrow, heartbreaking loss.
“It’s a long season,” said Barnes Arico. “I think this is definitely an eye-opener for us and a wake-up call, and we need to continue to improve.”
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