One of the things that really stood out about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in their run to the Final Four last season was their balance - although star guard Skylar Diggins got the majority of the spotlight, they got significant contributions game to game from across the roster.
But during the broadcast of UND's 94-81 loss to the Baylor Lady Bears in the WNIT Final last Sunday, head coach Muffet McGraw made the point that this year's team that comes in with such high expectations based upon last season's performance still needs to prove themselves.
"We get to see what are strengths and weaknesses really are," McGraw said in an interview during the broadcast. "We've had a couple of games where we've scored a lot of points; we know we're going to face a much better defense [against Baylor]."
Up against that "much better defense", the Fighting Irish not only failed to execute their normally well-balanced offense, but also essentially became a one-dimensional team.
Looking just at the final box score, it might seem odd to say that Notre Dame was one-dimensional given that both Diggins and Natalie Novosel finished with about the same number of points. However, there are two things that a closer look at the numbers reveals.
First, Diggins and Novosel combined for 38 of the team's 72 field goal attempts and 24 of the team's 28 free throw attempts. That's not at all a formula for success for them, particularly when Diggins is both shooting inefficiently and turning the ball over at a rate of about 20% (7 turnovers to only 3 assists).
Second, Diggins scored seven those points in garbage time when all that was left to see was the final buzzer going off. If you take away those seven points (a three, free throws on a technical, and a layup), Diggins still had 20 points but was 7-for-18 for an inefficient true shooting percentage of under 46%. That's not a big deal given that Diggins wasn't a terribly efficient scorer last season either (52% true shooting percentage) but her inefficiency was magnified given how much UND relied on her and Novosel to create shots.
But that raises another question: if Novosel was only 8-for-18 for the game, how was she any better. The answer: free throws.
UND statistical MVP: Novosel carries Fighting Irish with career-high 28 points
What really stood out about Novosel against Baylor was the approach she took to attacking the rim with Baylor women's basketball superstar Brittney Griner patrolling the paint.
While multiple players took the ball to the rim - particularly in the beginning of the game when they were working backdoor cuts beautifully - Novosel was the only one who did so with any measure of consistent success and her exceptional ability to draw contact and get to the line was particularly valuable, especially in contrast to her teammates who decided to take on the difficult task of trying to go around Griner.
Novosel got to the line against Baylor 15 times and had an outstanding free throw prodution rate of 61.11%. It was the points she got from free throws that helped her get her career-high 28 points (with an efficient 56.91% true shooting percentage) and really made the difference in keeping Notre Dame in the game.
And what really ended up deciding this game for Notre Dame was the combination of that inability for anyone other than Novosel to get high percentage shots scoring opportunities on the whole and uncharacteristically cold outside shooting.
Key stat: Notre Dame shoots 3-for-18 from the three point line
Notre Dame actually played Baylor relatively even in the second half, but dug themselves a real hole in the first half by shooting 1-for-12 from the three point line. Fittingly, that one made three was a buzzer-beater by Novosel, meaning they were 0-for-11 from the field. And not necessarily to take anything away from Baylor's defensive effort, but a number of those were wide open looks that one might expect a team that
It's way too simplistic to say that all you have to do to stop Notre Dame is stop them from driving to the basket to get their offense to stall. What really went wrong was that they were forced into settling for threes on a day when they were just cold on the road.That was compounded by the fact that they shot so many threes - they averaged about 13 threes per game entering the game against Baylor and nearly matched that in the first half.
But also in the first half, they only got to the line 8 times (a relatively low rate of 21.1%) and in the second half, they shot less threes but shot only 42.86% from three point range.
Meanwhile, Baylor was far more efficient almost ignoring the three point line and finishing shooting 47% for the game compared to Notre Dame's 38.9%. And of course, Griner helped them control the boards as well.
Baylor statistical MVP: Griner's 7 offensive rebounds hurt Notre Dame
In addition to her 32 points on 14-for-18 shooting and five blocks, Griner had 7 offensive rebounds (19.44%) that helped Baylor get high percentage second chance opportunities, which were particularly damaging to Notre Dame's chances as they were launching threes and not able to rebound that well in the first half.
Most significant about that rebounding performance for Baylor is that offensive rebounding was not something we could consider a strength for Griner despite her imposing stature. If she continues to show that kind of aggression and efficiency around the basket, it will be hard to beat Baylor.
For Notre Dame, that was significant because while they paid so much attention to Griner (ineffectively), Brooklyn Pope was free to do some damage of her own on the offensive boards with a dominant 34.18% offensive rebounding percentage of her own. There were plays on which one could imagine Baylor being better off just tossing the ball off the basket and going to get it to get easy second chance scoring opportunities.
But most important to Baylor's success going forward might actually be the play of Odyssey Sims.
Key player: Odyssey Sims was a game-changer for Baylor
Sims didn't start the game, but things really began to get out of hand for Notre Dame when she entered the game after about two minutes. And once she got in, she absolutely wreaked havoc on Baylor on both sides of the ball.
Obviously, Sims is a scorer and her 25 points with a 59.07% true shooting percentage - including a 93.33% free throw rate - were particularly impressive. But even more impressive this season - and maybe the single biggest improvement she could make this year - was her ball handling efficiency.
Sims finished with 6 assists and 2 turnovers (20.57% and 6.85% ratios respectively) for a pure point rating of 5.26, which is an elite number. With Taylor Condrey finishing with 6 assists and 2 turnovers of her own (6.45 PPR), Baylor's efficient guard play helped them get the ball into Griner where she could actually pose a threat.
Defensively, Condrey and Sims combined for 11 steals with Sims finishing with a team-high 6, which was no small part of what kept Notre Dame from executing consistently.
If the Condrey-Sims combo continues playing like that, there aren't many teams in the country this season that will be able to beat them as they finally extract more of Griner's offensive potential. And playing so well against a Fighting Irish team with a backcourt that led them to the 2011 National Championship and a unit known for their defensive ability bodes well for them going forward.
UND gets a different kind of test against USC in the Bahamas
Today UND faces USC in the Bahamas in what will be a very different sort of test - USC is a more perimeter oriented team that has plenty of potential as a tournament-caliber team, but is once again off to an inconsistent at best start.
USC wings Jacki Gemelos and Briana Gilbreath could apply the type of defensive pressure that takes UND out of their offense, but they've really struggled to make shots in their losses to Georgia and Nebraska and it's not exactly as thought UND's defense is any easier to score on. So far this season they've shot only 34.9% from the field and shot under 30% against Nebraska.
But as Notre Dame continues to learn about its strengths and weaknesses, perhaps what you'd want to see out of this game is how well they get back to what has brought such high expectations for them this season: a balanced and efficient offense complemented by a disciplined defense. USC isn't nearly the challenge that Baylor is on the interior, but the way Notre Dame plays and whether than can execute consistently against a strong opponent is worth watching for.