Updated: February 3, 2014, 2:20 AM ET

Efficient offense leads way for Irish

By Graham Hays | espnW.com

Dear ACC, what else have you got?

Sincerely, Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish won't say it, but somebody might as well.

A week that began for No. 2 Notre Dame with a win at No. 8 Maryland -- for which conference losses at home are accumulated with about the same frequency as tree rings -- concluded with an 88-67 win at No. 3 Duke, which last lost an ACC game at home when Jewell Loyd was in middle school. And in the middle was a trip home to rout Virginia Tech and, you know, go to classes.

One week and the ACC became a race for second place.

It wasn't just Duke that took a step back while Notre Dame surged forward in Sunday's encounter between teams that entered without a conference loss. The weight of the season seemed to catch up to the whole league. North Carolina lost twice at home against unranked teams and now plays five of its final eight games on the road, including trips to Duke, NC State and Notre Dame. Maryland appeared to come away from Monday's loss against Notre Dame with reason for optimism born of a strong second-half run, but the Terrapins then lost a third consecutive conference game at NC State. Only the Wolfpack, with that win against Maryland, escaped unscathed among Notre Dame's ranked challengers.

Kayla McBride
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeKayla McBride and the Irish shoot 51.8 percent from the field, 44 percent on 3-pointers, and 72.7 percent at the foul line.

Throw in the win Notre Dame earned out of conference two weeks ago at Tennessee, and we just saw the most impressive stretch any team had this season. The Fighting Irish won those three marquee road games in front of a combined crowd of 28,032 (as a point of comparison, before Sunday's game at Cal, Stanford had played in front of 28,128 fans on the road all season). Even Connecticut played once at home during the stretch in which it ran through Stanford, Maryland and Penn State in the span of a week earlier in the season.

People in South Bend won't appreciate the comparison, especially given their team's upper hand in the series in recent seasons, but Notre Dame is the most Connecticut-like team out there this season. And yes, before the pitchforks and torches come out along Twyckenham Drive, the facsimile could yet prove better than the original. As you might have heard, the two no longer play each other, so we can only wait for Nashville.

All five players in Notre Dame's standard starting lineup have more assists than turnovers (so do the three reserves who have appeared in all 21 games this season, including a freshman post player in Taya Reimer). Care to guess which other team in the top 10 can say that? The only other one that hasn't lost a game.

The Fighting Irish were uncharacteristically inefficient from the free-throw line Sunday, at least by their standards, missing eight attempts. They nonetheless remain the only team in the top 10 shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 70 percent from the free throw line. Connecticut is closest, but not even the Huskies do that.

Sunday was impressive -- it even took Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw until roughly the second breath of her opening comments to share her displeasure with the defense, compared to the first breath of her comments Monday at Maryland -- but it was also essentially par for the course. Duke's Tricia Liston was outstanding for stretches of the game, just as Alyssa Thomas was for Maryland, but Notre Dame's balance and flexibility across all five positions absorbed those individual efforts like rain drops on the ocean.

Against Tennessee, Kayla McBride, Loyd and Natalie Achonwa shot 54 percent (20-of-37). Against Maryland, McBride, Loyd and Achonwa shot 62 percent (21-of-34). Against Duke, they shot 63 percent (22-of-35).

Entering the weekend, none of those teams were allowing opponents to shoot better than 37.1 percent overall.

Why is this team capable of winning a championship? That's why. Not even the Irish teams that reached the Final Four in recent seasons were so efficient offensively. And it hasn't come against a soft schedule.

All the pieces fit together, which is often the most remarkable thing about watching that other team from Storrs. McGraw contended after Sunday's game that she has the nation's best backcourt with McBride and Loyd, and it's difficult to argue the point. But don't discount Achonwa's role in all of this, either. Unlike McBride and Loyd, the senior center's numbers are about where they were a season ago (and let's be clear, those were awfully good), but Achonwa's ability and willingness to take the team by the scruff of the neck -- which Diggins did last season and which takes the pressure off of McBride and Loyd -- matters just as much.

The season after Candace Parker moved on to the WNBA, Tennessee lost 11 games, including a first-round game against Ball State in the NCAA tournament. In its first season without Diana Taurasi, Connecticut lost eight times and exited the NCAA tournament in the third round. And those were programs theoretically best equipped to maintain success, their institutional capital built up over years.

The season after saying goodbye to Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame is 21-0.

And here the ACC thought it got the Fighting Irish at just the right time.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

Sooners top Cowgirls, focus on Lady Bears

NORMAN, Okla. -- Unless we're talking about the long weekends of the NCAA tournament in March or April, seasons aren't won or lost in three days. We're not there yet, as Punxsutawney Phil forecasted Saturday and a wind-blown snowscape on Super Bowl morning in Oklahoma confirmed a day later. Winter remains our host. Games remain to be played.

But perhaps three days are enough to revitalize a season, to restore it to the promise it held in October.

Entering Monday's game against Baylor (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET), Oklahoma is halfway there.

The preseason favorite to end Baylor's three-season run atop the Big 12 standings, Oklahoma looked the part in Saturday's 81-74 win against No. 11 Oklahoma State. You never would have guessed Oklahoma was the same team that three days earlier lost at ninth-place Kansas State and dropped to .500 in the conference.

There, in less than a week, were the highs and lows of a season with those preseason expectations but also three overtime losses, including one against No. 5 Louisville, and a single defeat by a double-digit margin.

"I think that ultimately, that's going to be maybe a piece of this group's legacy," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said of the Wednesday-to-Saturday gamut. "We don't know what their legacy will be yet, but that ability to reinvent themselves over and over and over again is going to be a part of it. And that's not an easy thing to do. You have to have a little bit of something inside of you to be able to incite that, when you kind of climb two steps up the mountain and then fall back a step. And then you've got regather and figure it out again."

Sharane Campbell
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsOklahoma junior Sharane Campbell's 28 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field helped Oklahoma down Oklahoma State.

Oklahoma won without big point production from Aaryn Ellenberg and Morgan Hook. Defended well by Tiffany Bias and Roshunda Jones, respectively, Ellenberg and Hook combined for 17 points, 13 fewer than what they collectively average for the season. Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell noted his team also succeeded in taking away the outside looks by which Oklahoma reserves Nicole Kornet and Derica Wyatt prosper. And still the Sooners scored 81 points.

Good offensive teams, and Littlell contended the Sooners might be the best in the Big 12, are like that. When her teammates don't ask Ellenberg to shoot 20-plus times a game, they can be that offensive team.

Oklahoma State took away a lot. It couldn't take away Sharane Campbell. The junior, who hadn't attempted even 10 shots in a game since Dec. 21, scored 28 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field and 11-of-11 shooting at the line.

"She beat us off the dribble," Littell said. "I mean, I wish I could give you a fancy long-version answer, but she beat us off the dribble. And then when she didn't make it, we fouled her. And the kid's an 85 percent free throw shooter."

While they still had to execute plays, make defensive rotations and the rest, it was evident from the outset Saturday that the Sooners had energy. That is as it should be in a rivalry game, "Bedlam" as they call it here. Coale credited the rivalry stakes when she talked about Campbell's performance, that these games mean just that much more to in-state products like the junior from Spencer, Okla. But even a Milwaukee transplant like Nicole Griffin seemed dialed in, that half step or half beat more aggressive as she totaled 14 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks.

All of the Sooners played like it was a rivalry game.

"You just kind of feed into that culture, I guess," Griffin said. "And then once you get it, you're like 'They're not winning it.' You just kind of become a part of the state. This is what it is; it's not happening. After freshman year ... you're a part of the state. It's who you are. It's like you're from here almost."

Despite a now familiar deficit on the boards, Oklahoma got to the free throw line and minimized turnovers. But forget the component parts, Coale suggested, or at least put them in their proper place in the pecking order.

"When we play with that immersion and that energy -- and that's such a vaporous kind of word, but it's real, it's what ignites us -- we're really good, we're really effective," Coale said. "There's nothing really we can't handle. When we don't have it, we're very average, we're very mediocre. We found a way to get it back, and the important part is now we have to maintain it."

Now how do they do that when the opposing team isn't from just up the road?

In reality, Oklahoma already accomplished what was necessary in this stretch. It needed a split of the games against Oklahoma State and Baylor, both as a brake on negative momentum and a boost to its at-large credentials for the NCAA tournament -- to continue moving away from a No. 8 or No. 9 seed and the potential therein for a second-round game against a No. 1 seed. Better to save that challenge for the tournament's second weekend.

"It's not just a big 48 hours for our team," Coale said. "It's a big month for our team."

But that month starts with 48 hours that mean a heck of a lot.


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