For some reason, I remembered the Notre Dame Fighting Irish faring much worse than the final score in their 94-81 loss to the Baylor Lady Bears in November would suggest.
That's because it was: Notre Dame was down by as much as 15 in the first half and down by 19 points with 1:43 left before a late run and buzzer-beating three from Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins left the deficit at 13.
So it might be hard to learn much from that beyond what many already think: Baylor is the favorite to win. But a few things immediately jump out as worth watching.
- Notre Dame won the turnover differential, but Baylor didn't commit that many turnovers: This was rather significant given what a strength forcing turnovers has been for Notre Dame this season. Notre Dame did win the turnover percentage differential by a narrow margin, but Baylor only committed turnovers on about 20% of their possessions, right around their normal rate but still efficient. However, that's well below the average turnover rate of Notre Dame opponents, which could be taken as a sign that Baylor did an outstanding job of controlling the ball against Notre Dame's pressure defense.
- Notre Dame played relatively even on the offensive boards in the second half: As it was in their previous game against UConn, rebounding - both getting second chance opportunities for themselves and denying Baylor opportunities - will be significant against Baylor. After getting crushed on the boards in the first half, the Fighting Irish put up more of a fight in the second.
Team First Half Oreb% Second half Oreb% Notre Dame 28% 42% Baylor 55% 44%
Offensive rebounding by half for Baylor vs. Notre Dame on November 20, 2011
It was certainly a team effort to step up in the second half, but Notre Dame's mentality on offense also shifted a bit.
- Notre Dame cut down on their threes in the second half: One notable difference between halves was that the Fighting Irish took half as many threes in the second half as they did in the first and got to the free throw line more than twice as often. Just from that alone, we can glean that Notre Dame went in reverse of the pattern many teams have fallen into this season: instead of starting out fearlessly attacking the basket, they started out camped on the perimeter and starting going to the basket more in the second half.
However, although it's tempting to just say Notre Dame needs to do more of what they did in the second half for the whole game, it's not even clear that's true: after being down only 1 point with 13:57 left in the game, Baylor went on a 14-3 run in about 2 minutes' time that shifted the momentum for good.
That run brings us right back to turnovers.
Key statistical battleground: Notre Dame's turnovers
There are two sides to saying that the Fighting Irish have a significant turnover differential relative to opponents: they force a lot and they don't commit many. Yet during that four minute span against in November, they committed 4 of their 10 second half turnovers. All 4 of those turnovers were off steals, three of which came at the hands of Baylor point guard Odyssey Sims.
Baylor key player: Odyssey Sims, on both ends of the floor
Sims' value to Baylor's success was evident against Stanford and will be no less significant against in the championship game against Baylor. Two ways she can be a factor showed up against Notre Dame the first time around.
In the first half she had 3 assists and no turnovers, which is important against Notre Dame's defense. In the second half, she had 5 steals including 3 during that momentum-shifting second half run.
It's too simple to say the Fighting Irish have to contain Sims because she killed them defensively when it counted the first time. They have to figure out how to respond to Sims while also maintaining that more aggressive offensive mentality of attacking the basket.
X-factor: Can Notre Dame run their offense effectively against Baylor's defense?
Although there's obviously a strong impulse to focus on individual matchups, few teams are more balanced than Notre Dame and they've had different players step up at various times in the season.
Against Baylor, they - perhaps more than any team - will have to find a way to maintain some fluidity with their ball movement and cuts despite the perimeter pressure from Sims and Griner's defensive presence inside.
The consensus of how to approach Griner seems pretty obvious - as Baylor alum and WNBA All-Star Sophia Young suggested the other day, you'd have to expect teams to try to run her off screens. Women's basketball legend and analyst Lisa Leslie echoed the same sentiment.
"She's a difficult matchup," said Leslie in an interview with Swish Appeal. "So you have to find strategies that will put her at a disadvantage. I think having a guard cross screen or down screen on her would be the best, which would put another player in position to switch onto [a post player]."
However, that's easier said that done.
Leslie also mentioned the importance of having a post player able to shoot from the perimeter and that's where a lot of this strategy comes together - if whomever Griner's guarding can step out and hit shots, the type of action that Leslie spoke about will work much more easily. If those shots aren't falling - or if the off-ball action grows stagnant - Notre Dame will be in trouble.
For all of the good things the Fighting Irish seemed to do in the second half against Griner, the one questionable thing that stands out is that they only had 3 assists on 14 made field goals, which suggests they were moving the ball much less.
The question for this one becomes who the film study of that first game benefits more - Baylor actually played an outstanding game, with 1.12 points per possession and avoiding turnovers against a tough defense. In a way, all the pressure is on them - in addition to being on the cusp of a record 40 wins, it's reasonable to wonder whether they can repeat that performance.
But ultimately, November was a long time ago - both teams have obviously made changes and the stakes are much higher. Notre Dame can't possibly expect Baylor to do the same thing as before anymore than they're preparing to. How both teams adjust given a season's worth of basketball will determine the outcome of this game.