After losing three starters from an NCAA finalist team, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw advised this season's Irish to adjust their sights accordingly.
"I felt like we were preparing the team to understand it's not going to be like last year," she said. "We're going to take some lumps. Don't set any expectations."
With veterans and freshmen alike assuming key roles, Notre Dame (18-1) still is dishing out the lumps. The Irish steamroll into tonight's game against Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena with a 13-game winning streak and an average victory margin of 26.1 points per game. The lone loss was to defending national champion Baylor, 73-61 at South Bend, Ind., on Dec. 5. Notre Dame has beaten five ranked teams, including then-No. 1 Connecticut — 73-72 in Storrs, Conn., on Jan. 5.
The attrition didn't deprive Notre Dame of All-American Skylar Diggins, who scored her 2,000th career point in Saturday's 89-44 victory over Providence. The reconfigured lineup benefits greatly from the senior point guard's temperament as well as her talent.
"Our confidence comes from her; it's contagious," McGraw said. "They believe in her when she says, 'We can do this.' "
McGraw thought that Diggins might have to average 20 points a game this season for the Irish to be successful. But Diggins' teammates have supported her with their production.
Natalie Achonwa, for example, has stepped into a starting role and flourished. The junior forward has increased her per-game scoring average by more the six points. She's recorded 11 double-doubles for points and rebounds this season after having just one entering the season.
Another new starter, junior forward Ariel Braker, has scored in double figures six times this season after doing it twice in her first two seasons combined. Despite a history of knee problems, Braker has emerged as "a surprise player for us, a little bit of an X-factor," McGraw said.
The third new starter is freshman guard Jewell Loyd, who set her bar high by scoring 24 points and grabbing seven rebounds against Baylor.
"I would say she's exceeded our expectations," McGraw said, "and our expectations were pretty high. She's so coachable. She's like a sponge. She always wants to know, 'how can I get better?' "
Other than Diggins, the other returning starter is Kayla McBride. The junior guard has increased her scoring average by more than three points and has scored at least 16 points in each of Notre Dame's six games against ranked opponents. She scored a career-high 21 against Connecticut.