Irish hope guard play neutralizes disadvantage in the post
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- In a town named for a French general who helped the United States gain its independence, the basketball team from a school that shares its name with a famous landmark on an island in the Seine will try its best to sack Paris.
Like any good insurrection by the little guy, the one orchestrated by Notre Dame will have to operate on the periphery of Tuesday's second-round game against Oklahoma (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET).
That's the Oklahoma with Courtney Paris, she of 91 consecutive double-doubles and a mix of size, strength and athleticism heretofore unseen in the history of women's college basketball.
"I think Courtney Paris probably creates a matchup problem for everybody in America, truly," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. "Because unless you've been on the floor with her, you don't really understand her brawn and her strength and her gifted hands -- there are lots of things you can watch on film and maybe appreciate but not really understand until you're on the floor with her."
On the flip side, Notre Dame's lineup often puts four guards on the floor together.
Images of Gulliver and the Lilliputians come to mind.
So as soon as fifth-seeded Notre Dame finished a tough win against SMU in the first round, on the heels of a similarly challenging win by Oklahoma against Illinois State, talk turned to how the Fighting Irish could possibly stop Courtney and underrated twin sister Ashley. Even for those most familiar with a Notre Dame team that is 24-8 and finished fourth in the Big East, the instinct was to paint the fourth-seeded Sooners as the aggressor.
"I think most coaches are defensive-oriented," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw admitted. "And that's the first thing I was looking at was, 'How the heck are we going to guard her?' Because we've got four guards and they've got two bigs.
"But on the other hand, you look and you say, 'Well they might have trouble guarding us on the perimeter.' We're not a great 3-point-shooting team, so I think that makes them a little easier for them to guard us. But overall, I think the speed we like to play at is very effective for us, and with a bigger team, I think it could be an advantage that we have."
Were such a statistic tracked, Notre Dame would undoubtedly rank dead last in the country in 3-pointers per minutes played by its guards. Charel Allen, Ashley Barlow, Tulyah Gaines and Melissa Lechlitner all average at least 22 minutes per game, and all are guards by any definition of the term. And as a quartet, they've produced just 49 3-pointers through 32 games -- or nine fewer than Oklahoma's Jenna Plumley.
But with the season on the line against SMU, it was the guards, particularly Allen and Barlow, who led the way out of a potential upset. Allen and Barlow combined for 34 points and 23 rebounds against the Mustangs. At 5 feet, 11 inches and 5-9, respectively, Allen and Barlow took 29 of their 31 total shots inside the 3-point line and had three fewer rebounds than the entire SMU team. In a basketball landscape where the space between the 3-point line and the paint is often a barren wasteland, Notre Dame has recruited a relay team's worth of guards who thrive where others fear to tread.
"It really is kind of unique," McGraw said. "Most of the teams we play always have really good 3-point shooters, and we're not that good. So it's kind of interesting to me that we score so many points without shooting 3s. But we do. Usually the mid-range game is the one that you look at the high school kids coming out and you say, 'That's what they need.' They're a 3-pointer shooter or a driver, but they don't have the middle game. Charel is great at the mid-range game, Barlow is a lot better and Lech is good at it. So I think that we are a little bit different in that, especially in transition, we're more dangerous at 15 feet than all the way inside or at the 3-point line."
Allen is a proven commodity who put up 21 points in last season's second-round thriller against North Carolina. She led the team in scoring this season and ranked among the top three in blocks, steals, assists, rebounds and free-throw attempts. And now she has a running mate in the same do-everything mold in Barlow.
"She's relentless and determined," McGraw said of Barlow. "I think those are the best words to describe her. And last year, she was somebody that always came up with a big play -- a rebound, a steal, something that was just going to be a blue-collar play. This year she's really improved her game. She's shot a little bit better from the 3-point line, shot a lot more from the 3-point line, pull-up jumpers; she's just shooting the ball a little more. She's somebody that we don't really run a lot of plays specifically for. She just scores out of the offense, out of just good basketball sense."
Forced to play essentially a forward's role off the bench last season when Lindsay Schrader was lost for the year to a knee injury, Barlow averaged 5.4 rebounds and nearly two steals per game as a freshman. Moved to the perimeter and into the starting lineup with Schrader healthy this season, Barlow is even more of an offensive weapon and remains a remarkable rebounder who has double-digit totals in two of three career NCAA tournament games.
"I like having Lindsay back," Barlow laughed. "That means she gets to bang with the big people and I get to be on the outside, so that's a good thing. And I worked on my shot all summer, so that improved over the summer and into the season. And I'm continuing to get after it on the rebounds as well. So I'm still doing the things I did last year and just improving on some things."
Oklahoma always will have an advantage as long as it has the Paris twins in the post. But rather than directing its resources at an impossible battle against that strength, Notre Dame can hope that two bigs against four guards is an equal-opportunity mismatch.
"I think the biggest thing with us having a deep rotation and a lot of times playing four guards at once, is you should get more opportunities at the basket because you should cut down on the number of turnovers," assistant coach Jonathan Tsipis said. "You're playing four people most of the time who are used to having the ball in their hands away from the basket."
If Notre Dame beats Oklahoma, it will have less to do with what it did against Courtney Paris than what its opponent was unable to do against all those guards.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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