Editor's update: Notre Dame wins 73-59. I would suggest this preview explains it.
There's an old adage that "offense sells tickets but that defense wins championships."
And in tonight's Elite Eight game between Notre Dame and Tennessee in Dayton, Notre Dame is going to need their underappreciated defense to pull off this upset.
When most people think of Notre Dame, they think of head coach Muffet McGraw or All-Big East point guard Skylar Diggins. And rightfully so - Muffet McGraw is a Hall of Fame coach and Diggins is not only one of the best point guards in the Big East but in the country. But what most people don't talk about is their undervalued and stifling defense.
"I really think it's going to be our team defense," said Notre Dame guard Brittany Mallory. "We have to play as a team; we can't just isolate any one person. We have to, you know if I get beat, I know Dev [Devereux Peters] is going to be there or anyone else is going to be there to help me. We just all got to rotate and just play our game, when we get steals, that's when we are at our best in transition."
Look no further than to Notre Dame's surprising 74-49 blowout of the Oklahoma Sooners in their Sweet Sixteen meeting on Saturday as a prime example of the havoc that their defense can wreak on opponents.
They held Oklahoma to 27 percent shooting in the first half, 1-10 from the three point line (10%) and to only 2 offensive rebounds for the entire game. Couple that with what they did to the star players of Oklahoma as Danielle Robinson, who is one of the nation's elite point guards to just 12 points while committing 7 turnovers. Whitney Hand who is Oklahoma's emotional leader was held to just 2-10 shooting (20%), 6 points and 0-5 from the three point line as Notre Dame's Brittany Mallory truly suffocated Hand with her defense. And freshman sensation Aaryn Ellenberg was held to just 9 points, well beneath her average of 16.2.
"I think they don't get enough credit for their defense because their offense is so salty," said Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale after Saturday's loss. "But defensively they're very good."
Let's look at some interesting statistics and past history of Notre Dame this year against some of nation's best perimeter players. Remember the name Courtney Vandersloot of Gonzaga, arguably the best point guard in the nation? In her first round game against Iowa, she had 34 points, in her second round game against #8 UCLA, she had 29 points and 17 assists and in her Sweet Sixteen game against Louisville, she had 29 points. Well when she played Notre Dame earlier this season in Seattle, she only had 10 points.
What about Louisville's star point guard Shoni Schimmel who had been on a tear recently? She had 33 points in her first round game in the NCAA tournament against #2 seed Xavier and then had 18 points in her second round game against Gonzaga. Against Notre Dame this year, she averaged only 11.5 ppg and shot 9-33 (27%) from the field and shot 4-17 (23%) from the three point line. Those are staggering statistics and shows that Notre Dame's defense should not be undersold.
With that being said, in addition to Big East Defensive Player of the Year Devereaux Peters there are two catalysts to Notre Dame's defense being so great on the perimeter, Mallory and unheralded junior guard Fraderica Miller.
"I mean it's exciting going up against the best point guards in the country," said Miller. "With Danielle [Robinson], like coach said, the key to the game was stopping her in transition. Same thing with [Meighan] Simmons, she's fast and that's the thing that's been my strength, since I've started playing is my quickness, my ability to guard other quick guards. I'm looking forward to it, I think it's going to be exciting, I'm up for the challenge, I'm ready for it."
But Tennessee seems to be on a mission of redemption, a mission of getting back to past glory, so if Notre Dame is going to stop them from achieving that task, it's not going to be their offense, it's going to be there defense.
"They are mindful of their defense," said Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt. "I was very impressed with them [Notre Dame].