Barlow spearheads Irish balance
Six players average at least 7.9 ppg for Irish, who play No. 1 UConn on Saturday
When it comes to basketball, Notre Dame is in Indiana the same way Vatican City is in Italy. Luckily for Notre Dame, Ashley Barlow has dual citizenship.
Growing up in the heart of the Hoosier State, I remember a world in which there was Indiana University or Purdue University when winter arrived. Two choices, plain and simple. Mackey Arena or Assembly Hall. Steve Alford or Troy Lewis. Notre Dame's basketball relevance hinged on Digger Phelps' personality and the fact that green made it easy for advertisers to pair Phelps as the Sprite pitchman next to Bobby Knight's Coke and Gene Keady's Diet Coke in television commercials.
If you don't hit football traffic, it's only about a three-hour drive from Pike High School on the northwest edge of Indianapolis to the Notre Dame campus. Take U.S. Route 31 and drive straight; if you hit Michigan, you've gone too far. But at some point along the way, you cross out of a state of mind that celebrates Bobby Plump, the real-life inspiration for the character of Jimmy Chitwood in "Hoosiers," and into a realm overseen by Knute Rockne and Paul Hornung, UCLA winning streaks notwithstanding.
Indiana is local and it's basketball. Notre Dame is national and it's football.
So while it looks a little strange in the black and white of the media guide, it's not necessarily surprising that Barlow is just the third Indianapolis native to play for the women's basketball program in South Bend (and the first in more than a decade). But you've got to hand it to Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw: When she mines Indianapolis, she finds gold.
Barlow isn't just of Indiana basketball; it runs through her blood. Her older brother, David, played at Pike, won a state championship in 2003 and later played at IUPUI. Third in the voting for Indiana Miss Basketball during her senior season at Pike, Ashley played in the annual -- and occasionally bitter -- all-star series between the best prep players in Indiana and Kentucky. And it's not a new development in the family. Her great-uncle, Bob Jewell, is in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and played with Oscar Robertson's older brother at Crispus Attucks High School, once one of the truly legendary programs in a state with plenty of them.
Barlow might be a little hazy on the details when it comes to Jewell's career more than 50 years ago (he was both the first African-American winner of the Trester Award as the outstanding senior in the Indiana high school tournament and the first African-American scientist at Eli Lilly and Company, the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant). But she is proud of carrying on a Hoosier heritage.
"It is pretty important to represent basketball here because it's a basketball state," Barlow said. "I mean, in the South you've got football and other things like that. But in Indianapolis, Indiana, it's like basketball is what we do. So it's pretty good to feel that way and be able to represent the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana the way I've been doing the past couple of years."
As No. 3 Notre Dame prepares for Saturday's showdown at No. 1 Connecticut (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET), it does so with four starters from the state of Indiana (only 19 native Hoosiers have ever played at Notre Dame). Three are from South Bend or nearby areas in the northern third of the state. The fourth might just be the most indispensable player on the roster, first on the list precisely because she's so good at being among equals.
As of Jan. 11, eight teams in the ESPN/USA Today top 10 had at least one player averaging 15 points per game or more. Most had at least two players at that mark. The exceptions were Georgia, which averages a modest 66 points per game as a team, and Notre Dame. Despite ranking seventh in the nation in scoring offense at better than 82 points per game, the Fighting Irish don't have a single player averaging more than 13.5 points. Instead, they have three players averaging double digits and six players averaging at least 7.9 points per game.
Right in the middle of that cluster at 11.5 points per game, Barlow is actually a fraction below her career average over her first three seasons. If that bothers her, she hides it well.
"I'm just trying to do whatever it takes for us to get a win," Barlow said. "If that's getting a rebound, if that's getting a defensive stop, if that's getting a steal, if that's making a big basket when we need it at the end, I mean, I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to be out there to be the leader that Coach wants me to be."
Easy to say, but not easy to live up to. A 5-foot-9 senior guard who plays much bigger, Barlow is an asset all over the court. She's second on the team in rebounds, third in assists and leads in steals. But more than any single stat, certainly more than points, Barlow's importance in matters both pragmatic and motivational is perhaps best seen in her 3-point shooting.
As a freshman playing starter's minutes off the bench, she hit 19 3-pointers on 32.8 percent shooting. The next year it was 27 3-pointers on 30.3 percent shooting. Respectable numbers, but nothing that set her apart or provided much relief for a team that hit just 90 3-pointers in 34 games that second season.
So Barlow dedicated herself to improving that part of her game. The work had its high points, including one memorable day firing up jumpers in the IUPUI gym with current Spurs guard and then-Pacers hopeful George Hill, a college teammate of her brother's, but mostly it was grunt work. It was day after day of work in the practice gym, taking pass after pass from a machine spitting three or four balls a minute at her for 30 or 45 minutes at a time.
"It's all repetition and getting your arm in the same motion," Barlow said. "And then do it over and over and over again."
The results were career highs in both quantity (40 3-pointers) and quality (36.4 percent) for a team that needed the outside threat after Brittany Mallory went down with a season-ending injury after seven games. Notre Dame's season might have ended in disappointing fashion, but Barlow was a big reason the optimism lasted as long as it did. Now Mallory is back, freshman Skylar Diggins is chipping in, Melissa Lechlitner is hitting and Barlow is shooting better than 40 percent from behind the arc. Once a fatal flaw, the team's shooting has followed Barlow's lead and become a strength.
"They don't know who to guard; they have to guard everybody one-on-one and that opens up everything else for everyone else," Barlow said. "If they know they have to guard us at the 3-point line, that opens up our post game, and when the posts start doing well and they start collapsing on them, that just opens us up."
All of which proves yet again that if you want someone who knows what it takes to be a shooter, you go to the basketball courts of Indiana. But in Barlow, the Fighting Irish landed more than a shooter. They got someone willing and able to do whatever is needed.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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