The Skylar Diggins era is over, but the Notre Dame women’s basketball program remains elite as ever.
Sophomore guard Jewell Loyd leads the irish in scoring with an 18.5 average and also is second in rebounding with a 7.1 average per contest.
Four starters returned from last year’s third straight Final Four team, and they have been augmented by three McDonald’s All-Americans, sophomore guard Michaela Mabrey and freshmen Taya Reimer and Lindsay Allen in the post and at point guard, respectively.
Head coach Muffet McGraw’s squad extended its regular season winning streak to 33 with a 10-0 start this year while making it look too easy. The Irish are No. 1 in the nation in field-goal percentage (52.2 percent), three-point field-goal percentage (44.9) and assists per game (23.8), No. 4 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.50) and scoring margin (30.3), and No. 5 in rebound margin per contest (14.8).
It’s also in a familiar spot in the polls, No. 2 to Connecticut, the eight-time national champion since 1995 that is the prohibitive favorite to repeat cutting down the final nets. Notre Dame was 3-0 against the Huskies last season before losing in the Final Four, or the de facto game for the national title. The two might be on a collision course for another such meeting.
"Notre Dame is at another level," said Central Michigan coach Sue Guevara after her Chippewas lost this Sunday to the Irish 106-72, whereas last year the score was a more respectable 72-63. "They have a lot of weapons.”
While Diggins’ leadership and tempo setting on defense are irreplaceable, there seems to be a tacit opinion among Irish foes that Notre Dame might be even better, deeper and more athletic than ever. UCLA head coach Cori Close, who signed three of the nation’s top 10 players for next year, expressed that opinion after suffering a 90-48 blowout loss to the Irish on Dec. 14.
“They have a lot of great individual pieces, but I think they’re even better in their teamwork than they are individually,” Close said. “There is no deferring to one person. And so now you don't have as much ball watching, you’re preparing for that next pass, that next cut … I just think they’re creating easier shots for themselves.
“I don’t think there’s anytime where they’re looking, ‘Okay, what’s Skylar going to, and how do I react to that?’ It’s ‘What am I going to do and how do I contribute to that next play?’ You put five of those decision makers in the mix on a consistent basis, I just think you have the potential to grow into a stronger team.”
The Irish still possess what might well be the best athlete ever to suit up for the program in 5-10 sophomore guard Jewell Loyd. Last year’s USBWA National Freshman of The Year is playing at a level that is making her a bona fide All-American candidate.
During back-to-back victories at Michigan on Dec. 14 (86-64) and at home Dec. 22 versus Central Michigan, Loyd converted 10-of-14 and 12-of-15 field goals, respectively. Alley-oops, full-court drives, three-pointers, coming off ball screens, low-post moves, crossovers, fadeaways, dribble penetration … you name it, she will score it, averaging a team high 18.5 points per game..
The well-balanced attack also has seniors Kayla McBride (14.4), a 2013 All-American, and Natalie Achonwa (12.4), sophomore Mabrey (11.1) — the team’s best perimeter shooter with 20 treys — and Reimer (10.2) also in double digits, with freshman guard Lindsay Allen (8.9) not far behind. Allen leads the team in assists with 41, just ahead of Mabrey’s 39. Reimer was a top-5 recruit, just like Loyd and Diggins.
Put it this way regarding the team balance and depth: the eighth player, junior guard Madison Cable, torched UCLA with 21 points while drilling her first five three-pointers before finally missing.
Loyd’s exceptional leaping skills and instincts also have made her second in rebounding with 7.1 per game — plus she is the team’s best defender.
“Simply amazing,” said McGraw after the win over the Chippewas in which Loyd tallied a career high 30 points to go with 11 boards. “… You can’t really guard her one-on-one. When she gets the ball and a head of steam going down the floor, she’s pretty much unstoppable.”
The three-time All-American Diggins groomed Loyd to become the next Irish mega-star, and the sophomore is seizing the opportunity.
“It definitely helps when you have teammates telling you to shoot,” Loyd said. “…You have to stay confident on the floor. You're going to miss shots, but you just keep shooting and [when] you have the belief of your coaches and team on your side, it helps a lot.”
“She’s a little more aggressive looking for her shot,” McGraw said. “Last year at times with Skylar and K-Mac, she was a little more reserved offensively, and now she’s seeing we need her to have an explosion like that in different games, and she’s capable. She’s really playing to her potential.”
The rest of the program appears to be following suit.
The Irish conclude the non-conference portion of their schedule at Oregon State this Sunday before hosting South Dakota State on Jan. 2. Their maiden voyage in the ACC begins with Clemson at home Jan. 5.