SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Finding fault with Notre Dame's play this women's basketball season requires an eye for detail.
The Irish lead the nation in scoring, averaging 85.2 points per game, and are among the nation's leaders in field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. On defense, they are among the best in steals, turnover margin and scoring defense.
Coach Muffet McGraw had to dig deep for a flaw. But there it was in a 76-50 victory over Cincinnati earlier this month: suspect defense against the Bearcats' point guard.
"They were like 'OK, let's go fix it,' " she said. "I love that about them. They take so much pride in their defense and they're workers. They're competitive. It makes my job so much more enjoyable."
And it makes Tennessee's challenge that much more difficult when the ninth-ranked Lady Vols (14-4) face No. 2 Notre Dame (19-1) at 7 tonight (TV: ESPN2) at Purcell Pavilion.
At least they have some idea of what they're up against. Led by Skylar Diggins' 24 points, the Irish bounced Tennessee from the NCAA tournament last season, winning 73-59 in the Dayton Regional final. They reached the national championship game before losing to Texas A&M, 76-70. UT assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, who prepared the scouting report for the game, thinks that these Irish are better.
"They kind of have an air of confidence about them,'' she said. "They really took advantage of the success they had last year because they just appear to be a lot more confident. They just have a little swagger about them."
They've also benefitted from this season, particularly a 56-54 victory over then-No.7 Duke on Nov. 26 in the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas. The Irish tied a school record in overcoming an 18-point second-half deficit to beat the Blue Devils. McGraw referred to the victory as "kind of a springboard."
"You didn't go in the locker
room hearing people yelling at each other,' McGraw said. "It was, 'Hey, we've got to get our act together.' It was a real positive halftime."
DeMoss has been chronicling the ripple effect of that result. She described the by-product in glowing terms.
About Notre Dame's offense: "The halfcourt execution is some of the best that I've seen from any team in the country,'' she said.
Concerning the Irish defense: "They're going to make you earn every point you get,'' DeMoss said. "They're not extremely athletic but they're smart. They play angles well and they're very aggressive on the ball and one pass away."
The Lady Vols are in better shape to face such stiff opposition. Forwards Glory Johnson (left shoulder) and Shekinna Stricklen (right knee) both returned to practice on Saturday and said that they will play tonight. Taber Spani (left knee) remains listed as day to day but the Lady Vols twitter feed said that the junior guard participated in some practice drills on Sunday.
Despite the lingering pain in her left shoulder, Johnson also has a healthy attitude about the game. She said that UT has an advantage with the size and depth of its post game. Johnson also believes the Lady Vols are better prepared for what she described as "a huge game."
"It's something we're ready for,'' she said. "Early in the season we were kind of playing around, didn't really know what each player's role was and stuff like that. But now I think it's different. We've grown so much. And everyone has developed a little bit more."
DeMoss said that the Lady Vols better limit their turnovers and defensive mistakes and pile up the rebounds, among other objectives. Essentially, she was saying that they better sweat the details.