Commentary

Confident Irish never got rattled

Originally Published: January 20, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

Certainly, there were lots of signs in the first half Monday that Tennessee's players definitely thought they could hand Notre Dame its first loss this season. However, there really was no indication that the Irish thought that would happen.

And that's one of the main takeaways from No. 2 Notre Dame's 86-70 victory in Knoxville, Tenn., over the No. 11 Lady Vols. The Irish don't get rattled, not even by a crowd of 13,000-plus at Thompson-Boling Arena that was clearly trying to help elevate Tennessee into being the team the Lady Vols desperately want to be.

The Irish fell behind by 12 in the opening half. But there was no panic. They seem to have faith that even when things don't start out well, they will not only be able to fix them, but gain the upper hand. It's the kind of confidence that we saw for so many years in … well, Tennessee.

The thing that made Tennessee the "Orange Crush" wasn't just that the Lady Vols could dominate so often. It was also that even when they were in trouble, you could tell they fully expected to work their way out of it. They were like James Bond or Indiana Jones or Ripley from "Aliens." No matter how much peril they appeared to be in, they still almost always escaped with bravado.

If any coach knows how hard it was for so long to beat Tennessee, it's Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw. Notre Dame was 0-20 against the Lady Vols until the Irish's breakthrough win in the 2011 NCAA Elite Eight.

[+] EnlargeKayla McBride
AP Photo/Wade PayneKayla McBride and the Irish trailed by 12 in the first half, but they turned a five-point halftime deficit into an 86-70 victory.

Now, the Irish have won the past four against Tennessee.

Notre Dame has become a program that believes in itself every game. Tennessee just doesn't seem as sure. That's the big-picture view about what happened Monday.

To break it down a bit more specifically, consider something Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said last week after her team came off a loss at Vanderbilt, a series Tennessee historically has dominated.

"I think it's gotten hard for me to understand what the kids think, especially during a game," Warlick said.

That's a frustration plenty of coaches experience, even if they don't necessarily say so. Warlick was a fierce competitor in her playing days at Tennessee, and was a fiercely loyal assistant coach for decades under Pat Summitt. Warlick has a "here's the plan, let's get it done" kind of personality. And there are times you can tell she's wondering, "Guys, what's so hard about just doing what we've planned to do?"

Making it more frustrating is that Warlick thinks the Lady Vols actually are doing the right things in practice much of the time, but not always carrying that over to games. For instance, their perimeter defense.

"Our defending penetration on the perimeter has been lacking," Warlick said. "I think it's put us in some really bad situations where you have to rotate your defense, or when you penetrate down the middle, there's no help. We work on it every day."

Yet in Monday's loss, just as was the case in losses to LSU and Vandy, Tennessee got burned on the perimeter. LSU's Danielle Ballard had 25 points and four assists. Vandy's Jasmine Lister and Christina Foggie combined for 43 points and seven assists.

Notre Dame's guard attack was even more multifaceted. Kayla McBride had 22 points and seven assists. Fellow starter Jewell Loyd scored 11 points (let's hope her ankle, injured late in the game, is not seriously hurt). Madison Cable and Michaela Mabrey came off the bench to combine for 27 points, and it was their 3-point shooting that really invigorated the Irish as they took over about midway through the second half.

Notre Dame also got a combined 24 points from forwards Natalie Achonwa and Taya Reimer. The Irish had 23 assists to 12 turnovers, and they shot 50 percent both overall from the field, and from behind the arc.

[+] EnlargeTennessee
AP Photo/Wade PayneAriel Massengale had 14 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists, but Tennessee, in its second home loss this season, scored just 24 second-half points.

Once the Irish had taken control of this game, they looked sharper in every aspect than did Tennessee, which scored only 24 points in the second half. The Lady Vols have weapons, but once they started misfiring, they could not regain any advantage.

Meighan Simmons had 23 points and was 10-of-14 from the field. Ariel Massengale had 14 points and was 5-of-15 shooting. They combined for nine assists. But as a backcourt, did they manage the game as well as they needed? Did they defend at the level they'll have to if Tennessee hopes to make a serious run at the Final Four?

We saw in the second half just how good offensively Notre Dame can be, even without Skylar Diggins as the point guard. There are a lot of reasons the Irish are undefeated, and their offensive execution is a big one. McGraw knows what they are thinking, and vice versa. So you can't expect Tennessee -- or anybody, really -- to just shut them down.

Still, that this game started with so much promise for the Lady Vols, yet ended up being a 16-point loss at home, has to be disheartening for them.

Now, though, Tennessee has to focus on really nailing down an identity -- for one thing, there is more offensive potential in the frontcourt than is being regularly tapped into -- and holding onto it.

The SEC is deep and tough this season; that's real, not just reputation. The Lady Vols are home against Florida on Thursday, and travel to SEC leader Texas A&M on Sunday.

As for Notre Dame, the Irish return to their new conference, the also-difficult ACC, where, to be frank, they still have all of their toughest league games ahead of them. Including Maryland, North Carolina, and Duke twice. The Terps host Notre Dame on the Jan. 27 "Big Monday" (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

The Irish have much left on their plate, but they showed Monday that it's going to take a lot to knock them off.

You can't beat the Irish with one really good half, or even a very solid two-thirds of a game. You have to go toe-to-toe with them the entire way, because they are not likely to succumb to anything less.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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