Mallory's defense downs DePaul

After stopping Anna Martin, Brittany Mallory and the Irish advance to play West Virginia. David Butler II/US Presswire

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Plenty of players perfect legacies by doing things that don't show up in the box score. Just don't count Brittany Mallory among those masters of the intangible.

Mallory's value shouts at you from the box score. You just have to know where to look.

The fifth-year guard was the only starter for No. 2 Notre Dame who didn't score in double digits in a 69-54 victory against No. 23 DePaul in a Big East tournament quarterfinal, the first game of what the Fighting Irish hope is a second consecutive extended postseason run. But even on a day when Big East Defensive Player of the Year Devereaux Peters earned every bit of that honor with 12 rebounds, 6 blocks and 3 steals, Skylar Diggins warmed up for March heroics with 12 points, 5 assists and 6 steals and Natalie Novosel tied for the scoring lead with 16 points, Mallory was her team's most valuable player.

She is at her best when you don't notice her, which is to say when you don't notice the other team's best player.

With just eight players in uniform for much of the second half of the season, only seven of whom played with any regularity, DePaul had every excuse to fade completely out of the Big East picture. That the Blue Demons didn't, that they instead entered Sunday's conference tournament quarterfinal ranked and competitive, had a lot to do with junior Anna Martin. Filling the void without injured All-American Keisha Hampton, Martin led the Big East in scoring, averaging 19.5 points per game. She was one of just two unanimous all-conference selections, along with Notre Dame's Diggins, and backed that up with 33 points in her team's first postseason game Saturday against South Florida, her second game in a row with at least 33 points.

Martin proved herself to be one of the elite pure scorers in college basketball this season. A 41 percent shooter from the 3-point line, she's also perfectly willing and able to get in the lane and finish or get to the free throw line (her free throw attempts and percentages are almost identical to noted dribble-drive commando Novosel).

Martin finished Sunday's game with seven points and five turnovers on 3-of-10 shooting, two points fewer than she managed on 3-of-18 shooting when the Blue Demons lost to the Fighting Irish in the regular season.

Which is how Mallory, and all four points that she scored, ended up with the most impressive line in the box score -- Martin's.

"She's got an incredible attitude of determination and pride," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of her fifth-year defensive stopper. "She wants to guard the other team's best player. She's got great feet. She really has very quick feet and really good hands. You look at her, and we hear it all the time on the TV games: 'You look at her and she doesn't look athletic.' But she has so much of the internal fight in her and she's kind of fearless and relentless. She's going to get through the screen. She's just not going to quit on it.

"That's her biggest contribution to our team is the way she can defend, and she always guards the other team's best player. Really, she did a good job on everybody she guarded this year."

Martin was Notre Dame's main focus on the defensive end from the moment the game tipped. As a result, between recognizing her in transition and using substitutions to keep defenders fresh, a lot of people ended up guarding DePaul's star at one time or another -- in the first 11 minutes alone, five Fighting Irish defenders assumed the stance in front of her. But whether it was Diggins, Novosel, Kayla McBride, Fraderica Miller or anyone else, they were all just keeping the seat warm for Mallory, who easily spent 75 percent of her defensive time, if not more, on Martin. Mallory thinks defense, understands defense and came in knowing exactly what she wanted to do with a familiar foe.

"You've got to be a little physical with her coming off [screens] and be right in her face when she gets the ball," Mallory said of Martin. "We have film we watch. We have a scouting report. We know her tendencies, what she likes to do. She likes to lull people a little bit. You've just got to be patient and stay with her hips. You can't watch her head or the ball."

Martin's five points in the first half came on a layup after she slipped between Diggins and Novosel on a switch, and a 3-pointer in transition, when Mallory had picked up another player closer to the basket. Oddly enough, the only field goal Martin scored for which Mallory was truly at fault was because of an offensive miscue from the latter, a turnover at midcourt that resulted in a Martin layup in transition.

Much of Notre Dame's defensive prowess comes down to Peters. Outside of Brittney Griner, good luck arguing that any player has more of an impact defensively than Peters, who has taken an all-conference game to All-American levels over the past month. Mallory and every other guard for the Irish has the luxury of knowing Peters is behind her, the only player to rank in the top 10 in the Big East in blocks and steals waiting in support to erase mistakes or excuse overaggressiveness. But if Peters can humiliate opponents, Mallory is just about as valuable in driving them to the edge of distraction.

Martin was patient through much of Sunday's game, trying not to force looks and letting teammates keep the Blue Demons in the game. But by the time she dribbled back and forth over the same real estate in one corner of the court in the second half, sucked into the one-on-one battle to the exclusion of anything else until it was too late for anyone else to beat the shot clock, Mallory had her.

"They push off a little more, they get their elbows a little wider," Mallory said of the telltale signs that opponents are tired of her encroaching on their personal space. "It's a good feeling, getting them out of their game and getting in their head a little bit. You can definitely tell when people, good players like Anna Martin and them, get a little frustrated."

Mallory might not look like a lockdown one-on-one defender, but she seems like she was designed to play defense, a physical, confident kid who learned to move her feet and absorb a little abuse on both the basketball courts and lacrosse fields in her native Maryland (she was a top-tier prospect in the sport with the sticks, as well). The catch is a player who averaged nearly 18 points per game in high school came late to the defensive game.

"My high school coach talked to Coach McGraw last year and was like, 'Who is that girl? She did not play that defense in high school,'" Mallory admitted. "I knew I wasn't going to contribute with [Diggins, Novosel and McBride], real scorers on our team. So I just tried to knock down the open shots, but I just found my nook and defense was it. I take pride in really getting up and guarding their best player."

She did that as well as it can be done against a terrific offensive player Sunday afternoon. And even if it's easy to miss that contribution in the box score, it does not go unnoticed.

"My team knows," Mallory said. "They recognize me for it, and my coach knows. So that's a good feeling."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.