The Marquette Golden Eagles will be in South Bend later today squaring off against the #2 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish in their last non-conference game...and yes, there’s a chance to pull off the upset. I’m going to use my basketball expertise (hey, why are you laughing?) to break down how the Golden Eagles will win this game. Someone has to believe right?
But first, let’s get all the logistics out of the way, shall we?
Game #11: at #2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-1)
Here are a two advantages that the Fighting Irish have that Marquette will need to overcome in this game.
#1: The Fighting Irish are ELITE.
While the Golden Eagles have yet to prove that they belong among the nation’s best teams, the Fighting Irish have been a seasoned national powerhouse for as long as I can remember. Since joining the ACC in 2014, Notre Dame has won the regular season and conference tournament title every year and have only lost two conference games in that span. Not too shabby. Under head coach Muffet McGraw’s leadership, who is a LEGEND (and not just because of her name), the Fighting Irish have made 15 Sweet Sixteens (including each of the last eight), seven Final Fours, and five National Championships. They have only won it all once back in 2001, but made the Final Four five consecutive seasons between 2011-2015. So yeah, the Golden Eagles are going up against probably the second most impressive women’s basketball program of the 21st Century other than UConn. As far as this season goes...same old, same old for the Fighting Irish. Their only loss came against the #1 ranked Connecticut Huskies by nine points, which is basically a win if you can keep it single-digits against Geno Auriemma’s squad. Other than that, they have beaten up on opponents by an average of 17 points per game and beat the defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks earlier this year. By my logic, since they’ve already beat the champion they’re essentially a lock to make the Final Four again this year.
#2: Speaking of this year...
Notre Dame’s handled weaker opponents but have also beaten tough nationally ranked teams like South Carolina, Oregon State, USF, and Michigan. As a point of reference, they beat Michigan by 20 in Ann Harbor while Marquette lost to the Wolverines by six. This success is largely due to Notre Dame’s four players averaging double-digits in scoring. Leading the way is Milwaukee native Arike Ogunbawale with 20.7 points per game. She has led the team in scoring in six of the 11 games so far this season. After that, is junior Jessica Shepard who is averaging 15.3 points per game. She is just as dangerous as Ogunbawale (if not more) because of her 6’4’’ stature. She has been killing teams inside the paint this season. Just ask their most recent foe DePaul...where she went off for a career high and Purcell Pavilion record 39 points and had 11 rebounds in that game. Coach Carolyn Kieger will have to roll back the tape and find a way to slow down Shepard. The other two players that are averaging double-digit scoring are sophomore Jackie Young and junior Marina Mabrey with 13.5 and 11.4 points a piece. In reality, if MU can find a way to slow down Ogunbawale and Shepard, I think they’ll be in good shape. For the record, Shepard turned her ankle late against DePaul, and is questionable for the game against Marquette.
Here is how Marquette will knock off #2 Notre Dame...
If you haven’t noticed, Marquette loves to run full-court and half-court presses often throughout the course of the game. This has been very effective against opponents and has left many coaches scratching their heads wondering how to beat it. It’s really stood out in their last two games where they’ve had a combined 36 steals against Army and Milwaukee. That’s bonkers. Marquette needs take it to the Fighting Irish early and go full-court press right away to see how they handle it, as they’re already turning it over more than 14 times per game. If they’re rattled and have trouble getting the ball up the court...keep doing it. If they break it early, implement strategy number two...
Deny the ball inside the paint and force Notre Dame to take outside shots. Primarily, don’t let Shepard get comfortable down low. Whether that’s double-teaming her in the paint and forcing her to kick it out, or simply blocking off the inside pass with good defense, MU cannot let her get going. The key is to seal off the paint and force the Fighting Irish into taking threes. They are only 31% from 3-point land and their most accurate shooter has taken just 20 attempts. Ogunbawale is the only player that poses a real threat with a respectable 34% shooting from distance so MU will just have to make sure they close on her quick. Mabrey is a career 40% shooter, but she’s only knocking down 26% of her treys this season. I think if Marquette can deny the ball inside or double team Shepard when she gets it, they’ll frustrate the Fighting Irish attack and force them to take outside shots.
Lastly, Marquette needs to play their best offensive game they’ve had all season. This includes shooting the three ball well. I expect Natisha Hiedeman and Lauren Van Kleunen to step up big for the Golden Eagles and be efficient from three. Notre Dame has allowed opponents to make an average of three 3-pointers more per game. As a whole, MU cannot miss open shots. What gives me confidence is the fact that Marquette has five players averaging double-digit points this season. It’s going to be difficult, but DePaul showed us that it’s possible to keep up with the Fighting Irish. As we learned last season, anything DePaul can do, Marquette can do better.
If Marquette can force lots of turnovers, limit the Fighting Irish to outside shooting, and play near-perfect offense they will win this game. It’s a lot of “IF’s,” but you need a lot of “IF’s” to go your way if you want to knock off the #2 team in the country in their building. Marquette’s defense has been playing great as of late and they have multiple players capable of going off and putting up points in bunches. The biggest component to this upset will be MU closing the game out and making shots in the key possessions down the stretch. If they do everything I just outlined, which I know is a lot to ask for, even for Christmas... but if they can do it, then I can smell the upset.