Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports
Fresh off of winning the three-game Vancouver Showcase during Thanksgiving weekend — highlighted by rallying from 14 points down to defeat No. 9 Oregon State, 91-81 — the top-ranked Fighting Irish host back-to-back marquee games this week: No. 14 Iowa tonight (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2) and No. 2 UConn Sunday.
The game with the Hawkeyes will feature 6-3 All-American center Megan Gustafson, who is averaging 23.2 points and 12.6 rebounds per game while shooting an amazing .768 from the floor. She is one of five players averaging double-figure scoring for Iowa.
Notre Dame (6-0) already has defeated three ranked teams in Oregon State, No. 16 DePaul and No. 24 Drake. For the Irish, Arike Ogunbowale (24.5 points per game) has tallied a minimum of 20 points all six games while junior Jackie Young (18.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.2 rebounds per game) is the reigning espnW Player of the Week for her all-around efforts at Vancouver. Seniors Jessica Shepard (18.4 points and 11.2 rebounds) and Brianna Turner (14.0 points and 8.3 rebounds) will attempt to limit Gustafson in the post.
Senior point guard Marina Mabrey, sidelined the first five games with a quadriceps injury, saw her first action during the win versus Oregon State, playing 19 minutes, and she tallied the three-pointer that broke a 77-77 tie and put the Irish ahead for good.
“It’s so great to have Marina Mabrey back,” said head coach Muffet McGraw. “She had such an impact in the game just in the limited minutes she was allowed to play. Brought great energy and really needed someone to shoot the three.”
1.Breaking In Gradually
Mabrey will start tonight, but she is on a “minutes count” per quarter with the medical staff.
“I think it’s going to be a few weeks before I look like my old self out there,” Mabrey said. “I feel normal, I don’t have any pain or anything. I definitely feel like my work capacity and cardio has taken a hit. I just have to get back into it and keep working … Being out there for that long (19 minutes) still kind of felt like it was a longer period than normal.”
2. Jordan Nixon Status
The freshman point guard missed all of the Vancouver Showcase while on concussion protocol, and Wednesday was the first day she was cleared to practice. How much she will play against the Hawkeyes, if at all, is uncertain.
McGraw said the highlight of the Showcase and the past two weeks was how freshmen guards Katlyn Gilbert and Abby Prohaska, plus sophomore forward Danielle Patterson, performed when Nixon, Shepard and Mabrey all sat at various times because of injuries. However, that doesn’t mean McGraw will be more liberal in her use of the bench.
“There is still a pretty big gap between the bench and the starters,” McGraw said. “You’re talking about five WNBA players and a lot of freshmen. They understand that and the growing pains, but it’s really good to have that. So if we get into foul trouble or anything goes wrong, we know we can count on them.”
3. Better Parity
Many of the national or conference favorites this year already have been in tight battles, including UConn pulling away late to beat unranked St. John’s (65-55), the Irish needing a huge rally to beat Oregon State, Baylor getting by unranked South Dakota State (72-66), Arizona State taking Louisville to the brink before losing 58-56, or Syracuse nearly knocking off No. 3 Oregon (75-73).
“There’s a lot more parity, which is great for the game, and early in the year everyone is still trying to figure where they are,” McGraw said. “We started the Oregon State game poorly on defense … our transition defense has been a problem . And then figuring out things offensively: How are they guarding us, what’s open, what’s available? It’s taken a little more time then I would like for us to really get to where we look sharp. I don’t think we’ve had that game yet, even for moments.”