Irish still have a lot of work to do

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- An All-American desperately in need of someone to lend her some support. A long winning streak on the line for a national power. A coming out party at home for an emerging star in her second season.

But for the snow whipping around the winter wonderland outside the Breslin Center on Wednesday night, and Jim Harbaugh's absence, it might as well have been Monday in Palo Alto.

This time Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd, not Connecticut's Breanna Stewart, was shouldering perhaps too much of the burden for a team replacing a lot of points from a season ago. Notre Dame's 53-game regular-season winning streak was on the line. And Michigan State's Aerial Powers, with an individual performance at least the equal of Stanford's Lili Thompson put on two days earlier, was eager to use a high-profile game to vault herself to stardom.

The script looked familiar. And when Notre Dame couldn't get anything more than a missed 3-pointer on the final possession of the first half, the nation's third-ranked team left the court with the smaller number on the scoreboard.

Only the final act proved different, thanks in no small part to a freshman who looked spooked by the stage early on.

The lasting lesson worth taking from Notre Dame's 71-63 win against Michigan State, if one there be, is the same one Connecticut will need to take from its defeat against Stanford. The Fighting Irish still have a lot of work to do if they want to construct a fifth Final Four appearance in as many seasons out of the pieces currently in place.

When Notre Dame routed Michigan State to open last season, March couldn't come soon enough for a team with a veteran core. Now the Fighting Irish must be wishing 2015 had a leap day. Or a leap month. Work remains.

But it sure makes everyone a lot happier about the homework if it comes wrapped up with a win.

"We're so young; we have so much to learn," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "To have a win like this over such a quality team on the road early in the season, I knew we were going to find out a lot about ourselves. And I think we found some things that will help us, certainly in the next games.

"We know we have a lot of work to do, but I'm happy we were able to come out with a victory."

That Loyd is as good a player as there is in the game is perhaps the only thing Notre Dame already knew about itself. The junior played this game, particularly its opening minutes, at a different level than anyone else on the court. She came around screens and calmly knocked down pull-up jumpers. She drove to the basket and used angles like a pool shark, both those for maneuvering her body amongst opponents and the ball off the backboard. She jumped passing lanes on defense and coasted in for uncontested layups. With less than four minutes elapsed, Notre Dame led 10-5.

More accurately, Loyd led 8-5. She finished the first half with 14 points despite sitting five minutes with two fouls.

The problem was nothing else seemed to fall for the Fighting Irish. Credit some of that to a physical Michigan State defense that, aside from the same problems every team has against Loyd, took away the looks it needed to take away from other players. Chalk up some of it to foul trouble that discombobulated McGraw's rotation. And because sometimes the simplest explanation is the best explanation, chalk up some of it to lackluster offense.

"I think we got into a rhythm," said Loyd, who finished with a game-high 28 points. "I think when we were pushing the ball and running the floor, we were in a better rhythm. At times [early on] we were standing there a little bit."

If they were watching Powers, who could blame them? The redshirt sophomore totaled 27 points and 11 rebounds, the only flaw the missed free throws that haunted more Spartans than just her. Too many times to count a season ago, Notre Dame had the two best players on the court. Sometimes the three best players. Teams had to adjust to them, not the other way around. But the Fighting Irish didn't have an answer for Powers, whose sweeping crossovers left defenders flat-footed as she launched jumpers or trailing in her wake when she went off the dribble.

Powers took three shots in 18 minutes when the teams played a season ago, the victim of her own exuberance after two early fouls. If she makes opponents stop her instead, the Big Ten is in for some long nights against the combination of Powers and Tori Jankoska, who scored 20 points.

"She just has this presence about her," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said of Powers. "She's ultra-competitive, and it's to a fault sometimes, I guess. She just can take it to another level. It's fun to watch a kid do that. ... I think her and Tori have that same kind of DNA; Aerial just athletically can do so much more. When she decides she's going to play, she's going to play."

While those two dueled, nobody looked less sure of herself early than Brianna Turner, the prized recruit who set a program scoring record in her college debut. An inbounds pass less than 20 seconds into the game bounced off her hands and saddled with two first-half fouls, she never did establish much of a presence before the break. After scoring 29 points against an overmatched UMass-Lowell, she had no points, no free throw attempts and one field goal attempt in the first half.

"Their posts, they're just really physical," Turner said. "They were just really pushing me hard off the block, so I couldn't really get the position I wanted to down low."

Notre Dame came out of halftime and immediately fed the ball inside to Turner. She again bobbled her first touch but this time corralled it and finished strong. A minute later she rebounded her own miss and scored again. A minute after that, she absorbed contact, finished her shot as she drew a foul and hit the free throw for a three-point play.

It was the only time all game when it felt like Notre Dame might run away with things. If not for Turner picking up her third foul with more than 15 minutes to play, the Fighting Irish might have completed the run. Either way, after an invisible first half, the quiet freshman finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and four blocks.

She might be difficult to read, but she wasn't difficult to feed in the second half.

"I think the great thing about Brianna is she kind of went, 'Give me the ball,'" McGraw said. "She didn't say it, but we wanted to look in and see how it went, and she wanted it after that. So that was a good thing for us to learn today. I don't know that we came into the game thinking that that was going to be our game plan. But she really, really made some huge shots for us. I was really proud of how she played as a freshman in this environment."

There is a balance to strike for Notre Dame, which clearly has another special talent in Turner but doesn't want to rely too heavily on her. The search for that buffer zone between Loyd and the freshman was front and center Wednesday, as it likely will be for some time. Foul trouble up and down the lineup meant that Lindsay Allen spent a sustained stretch of the first half on the court with some combination of Michaela Mabrey, Madison Cable, Hannah Huffman, Markisha Wright and Kathryn Westbeld. That had to be culture shock for someone who spent her freshman season feeding the ball to Loyd, Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa. Allen scored 14 points on 14 field goal attempts, including much-needed points with that makeshift unit late in the first half, but she didn't look entirely comfortable in the role. Not yet.

"She had a tough game today," McGraw said. "I think she struggled with setting the tone for us, setting the pace for us. I thought we walked it up too much in the first half. Second half I think she got more into her game, with a little bit more pushing the ball, pushing the tempo. Because we really wanted to run. We thought we had an advantage in speed, and we didn't use it all in the first half."

One late sequence summed up the day for the Fighting Irish. Two free throws from Loyd extended the lead to 50-47 with close to nine minutes remaining, but Loyd then came out of the game for a final rest. Playing a zone in part because of all the foul trouble, Notre Dame jumped on an ill-advised post entry and extended the lead to five points in transition. Another stop led to another touch on the block for Turner and another basket, courtesy of an Allen assist.

So reliant on their star in the first half, the Fighting Irish didn't just maintain the lead with Loyd catching her breath, they extended it to seven points. Michigan State never got closer than that the rest of the way. It is something to build on.

Process matters more than results at the moment. But the wins still feel pretty good.