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It's a small world: Playing small-ball could have huge impact

Notre Dame was unable to knock off the top team in the country Saturday, but the Irish may have found a new way to play that other teams might soon look to replicate.

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Hartford, CT -- Everything seemed to be stacked against third-ranked Notre Dame when they faced off against No. 1 UConn this past weekend. Playing in a hostile environment at Gampel Pavilion was the least of their worries, as the Irish faced off against the best team in the country without two of their starting forwards.

Despite losing to the Huskies for the fifth straight time, Notre Dame got into an up-and-down, fast-paced shootout with UConn, and nearly won. The Irish lost by ten, but scored 81 points despite scoring only 53 points the last time these two teams met in the 2015 National Championship game.

Anyone who watched the game expected the high-scoring affair we got. The big takeaway for Notre Dame is how they were able to hang with the no. 1 team in the country. Without forwards Taya Reimer and Brianna Turner due to injuries, coach Muffet McGraw was almost forced to play a smaller lineup less reliant on the post-up game.

The idea of playing more perimeter players than usual is something that a lot of teams are trying at every level of basketball, and many are having success with it. The Irish were just the next team to find that success, and one coach says this new style "absolutely" made them harder to guard.

"I don't like playing teams that play without big guys because it really restricts what your big guys can do," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said after his team's 91-81 win. "They're way more dangerous, and way more difficult to defend. The difference is now you have to play four guys off the dribble, instead of two or three, and that's not easy."

That coming from a coach whose team is pretty versatile is saying something. Auriemma adjusted to Notre Dame's smaller lineups at halftime by going with three guards instead of two. Having Stewart, possibly the most versatile player in the game right now, definitely helps, but had Auriemma not adjusted the way he did, who knows how Saturday's game might have turned out.

"Playing three big guys when they have four guards is problematic, unless your three big guys are dominating the game," Auriemma said. "So I thought if we could get another guard out there, stretch that zone out a little more, we'd get more room for Stewart and Tuck to operate inside, and we did do that."

Before these adjustments, The Irish found themselves down early, but were able to storm back in the second quarter to take a one-point lead against the Huskies. While the game seemed to slip away in the second half, one thing did remain constant for Notre Dame's smaller lineup: their incredible accuracy from behind the arc.

The Irish shot 65 percent from three against the Huskies, and have actually relied on the three-point shot more with Turner out of the lineup. In the four games without Turner this season against Denver, UCLA, Ohio State and UConn, Notre Dame has shot 50 percent (38-76) from long distance, compared to the 37 percent (15-41) they shot when she was in the lineup. The Irish nearly made more threes in the last four games without Turner (38) than they attempted in the first four with her (41).

Shooting more threes is a direct result of having to play four guards at a time, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. A team like Notre Dame that is able to make a high rate of threes can use that ability to make up for their lack of size on the defensive end.

The Irish have used this smaller lineup three times so far this season, in games when they had neither Turner nor Reimer. In those games against Denver, No. 10 Ohio State and top-ranked UConn, Notre Dame actually out-rebounded their opponents 111-86. The only team that out-rebounded the Irish during those three games was the Huskies, who handed them their first loss of the season.

So if Notre Dame can play smaller, and apparently still keep the rebounding numbers close against two top-ten teams, then why not do it all the time? Well, there are some obvious downsides that are hard for any team to completely cover up. One of them is rim protection.

The Irish allowed opponents to score 24.8 points in the paint per game during their five games this season when they had either Turner or Reimer in the lineup. In the other three games, when they had neither Turner or Reimer, their opponents scored 30.67 points per game in the paint.

While all of these stats come in small sample sizes, they are a good sign for a Notre Dame team that will likely have to play without the Atlantic Athletic Conference Preseason Player of the Year for a while. McGraw said following the UConn game it is still unknown when Turner will be back, and said, "it's not going to be soon."

Turner played a big role and was a factor in last year's National Championship game against the Huskies, scoring a team-high 14 points and grabbing ten rebounds.

Auriemma even said after his team's ten-point win on Saturday he would rather play the Irish at full strength. Notre Dame's offense appeared more lethal and harder to stop when their smaller lineup of guards Madison Cable, Lindsay Allen, Michaela and Marina Mabrey and forward Kathryn Westbeld were on the floor.

The ability to drive and kick, resulting in good looks from the 3-point line, was critical in keeping the Irish in the game against UConn. The ability to penetrate a defense is a staple for teams playing smaller than their opponents, because of the mismatches they have on the perimeter.

A mismatch on the outside usually leads to a disadvantage on the inside on the other end, and McGraw knew coming into the game against the Huskies her team was not equipped to play man-to-man defense. Notre Dame played zone for much of the game, and that was key in limiting the distinct advantage UConn had inside.

Small ball is a growing trend that more and more teams are finding to be effective, especially when it causes their opponent to have to change what they are used to doing. This up-tempo style also usually includes players that are comfortable handling the ball, as well as shooting the 3-pointer; two things that basketball fans seem to really enjoy.

Teams playing small also benefits the product on the court, and actually fits into exactly what women's college basketball players are very good at. The combination of a fast-paced track meet with a lot of 3-pointers finding the bottom of the net makes small ball a fan-favorite. As playing small continues to grow in popularity throughout basketball, it will only attract more people to the women's game.

Notre Dame has been to five straight Final Fours, including the last two National Championship games, so by no means am I saying the Irish should completely change who they are and what they do. Sprinkling in this new, and very different way of playing can be the advantage that puts Notre Dame over the top in March, and helps them win their first title since 2001.