CONWAY, S.C.—When most people think of women's college basketball, their minds immediately jump to Connecticut and its dominance nationally.
The Huskies have won four straight national championships, and they are the one team everyone else must go through to reign supreme.
But a similar trend has emerged in the ACC, with Notre Dame proving to be the class of the league since joining the conference in 2013.
The Fighting Irish have won every regular-season and conference tournament championship, and perhaps more impressively dominated the team that ruled the ACC before them. Notre Dame has gone a perfect 8-0 against Duke during that stretch, with many of the games routs in favor of Muffet McGraw's team.
But after pushing the Fighting Irish to the brink in the regular season, third-seeded Duke will have the chance to finally get over the hump and dethrone No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the ACC tournament title game Sunday at 1 p.m. at the HTC Center. The Blue Devils are making their first appearance in the conference tournament championship game since 2014 and have been knocked out of the ACC tournament by Notre Dame every year since the Fighting Irish joined the conference.
But although Duke has not had recent success against Notre Dame, it knows it can slow down the Fighting Irish after holding them to just 62 points in the teams' regular-season matchup in South Bend Jan. 26.
“[Our defense has] been amazing and it needs to continue,” Blue Devil head coach Joanne P. McCallie said after her team's 57-52 win against No. 7 seed Miami Saturday. “I think the defensive intensity, it starts with the guards and how they dictate and everybody else has to sort of follow, but that’s a terrific effort and that’s the reason we get another game. Hopefully we can find a way to do the same thing, maybe in a different way against another team.”
Notre Dame (29-3) sports one of the most prolific offenses in the country, averaging 79.3 points per game and ranking third nationally in field goal percentage led by first-team All-ACC point guard Lindsay Allen and All-American forward Brianna Turner.
But Duke (27-4) has made its mark this year with stifling matchup zone defense, ranking third in the nation in field goal percentage defense at an astonishing 33.2 percent. After watching the Fighting Irish score 84 points in a 11-point win against fifth-seeded Louisville, the Blue Devils pulled out a win by holding Miami to just 52 points and not allowing a basket in the last 1:54.
“It was just our communication. We were really just buckling down for that possession and Kyra [Lambert] had a huge contest, and it was an awesome contest for someone her size,” Brown said. “But I think in those time and score situations and crunch time, it’s all about communication, and we really improved on that over the year.”
Duke fell 62-58 at Notre Dame in the regular season because it failed to execute in crunch time, but the Blue Devils took away the offensive balance that normally makes the Fighting Irish stand out. Although Turner piled up 25 points and 12 rebounds inside to carry Notre Dame, no other player scored in double figures, and the team's potent backcourt shot just 8-of-31 from the field.
McCallie's team has gotten used to playing without a ton of offensive balance, as Brown and fellow first-team All-ACC performer Rebecca Greenwell account for 34.9 points per contest—nearly half of the team’s total offense.
Although Brown had an impressive game against the Fighting Irish with 22 points, Greenwell struggled, shooting just 3-of-11. With Notre Dame likely to aggressively double team Brown like the Hurricanes did with some success Wednesday, the Blue Devils will have to stay patient to relieve that pressure and keep the Fighting Irish out of transition.
One player who could have a major impact for Duke is freshman Leaonna Odom, who had 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the regular-season meeting against Notre Dame and seven timely fourth-quarter points Saturday. The speedy forward is adept at handling the ball on the perimeter and attack off the bounce but is still big enough to compete inside as well.
After leading the Blue Devils in rebounding against Miami with nine, sophomore point guard Kyra Lambert could also be a difference-maker for Duke. The Blue Devils have gotten off to slow starts in both ACC tournament games so far, committing 35 total turnovers—many of which were unforced.
Such miscues against a third straight top-25 opponent will likely cost Duke a chance at pulling the upset, and the Blue Devils know they have the other pieces in place for a deep NCAA tournament run after Sunday's game if they can take care of the ball.
“For a lot of them and a lot of us this is our first ACC semifinal game, so we have to get a little bit of the nerves out of the way,” Brown said of her teammates. “We've got to cut down those turnovers if we want a chance against Notre Dame tomorrow.”
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