ACC week three: tournaments begin to solidify the picture

Tiana Mangakahia led Syracuse over DePaul. Syracuse.com photo.
Tiana Mangakahia led Syracuse over DePaul. Syracuse.com photo.

There are few regular-season game stretches more consistently enjoyable than those played the week of Thanksgiving. The annual round of small tournaments played around the U.S. and in neighboring countries offers teams a chance to travel to delightful places and face opponents they might otherwise never play.

The ACC compiled a mixed bag of results over the weekend, complete with surprises, upsets, and a healthy dose of chalk, too. Here’s how things shook out in week three of the season:

No. 1 Notre Dame faced some significant challenges this week, but came out looking even stronger and more dangerous (if that is possible) after overcoming them. The Irish took an appetizer 81-65 win off Gonzaga before playing two meaningful games. Their 82-64 victory over Drake was a solid-to-petty-good win in the moment, and gained even more significance in hindsight: 1. That was the first loss of the year for the 2-time Missouri Valley Conference champs and 2. Drake promptly turned around and knocked off No. 13 South Carolina. Transitive wins are a tenuous metric at best, but this one sure didn’t hurt. The real story of the week came Saturday night, when Notre Dame faced No. 9 Oregon State for the Vancouver Showcase title. They looked unprepared early, as the Beavers ran out to a 50-41 lead at the half, including a lead as large as 14 points in the second quarter. Lord only knows what alchemy of butt-chewing reprimand and fire-stoking inspiration Muffet McGraw laid on her squad during the intermission, but it surely worked, as they rallied for a 91-81 victory. Arike Ogunbowale, Brianna Turner, and Jackie Young all finished with 20-plus points, and Jessica Sheppard tossed up a 17-10 (boards) double-double. Not to be lost among the pyrotechnics of her teammates: Marina Mabrey, getting limited run in her first game of the year coming off a quad injury, put in nine points including a critical trey late in the game.

No. 5 Louisville had a tidy and productive week. The Cardinals downed Boise State and Hartford by healthy double-digit margins, and survived a scare from No. 19 Arizona State while scratching out a 58-56 win. Jeff Walz’s 5-0 team is outscoring opponents by 17.2 points per game, and that differential stems nearly as much from defensive stinginess as offensive brilliance. Shooting .500/.479/.810 is insanely impressive, but so is holding your opposition to .371/.286/.713 splits on the other end of the floor. Asia Durr is the team’s fulcrum and heart, but don’t sleep on Sam Fuehring (11.6 ppg, 6.4 apg) or Dana Evans, whose 7.4 points and 5.4 assists in a mix of starter and bench minutes have been essential.

With all due respect to the aforementioned Notre Dame/Oregon State game, No. 14 Syracuse might have played the clash of the week. After downing Kansas State 70-61 and destroying Princeton 92-61, the Orange ended the week with an absolute barn burner against No. 16 DePaul. ‘Cuse notched an overtime victory capped by a buzzer-beating layup from Tiana Mangakahia, who put up a monster 22 points, 10 boards, and six assists in the win.  She was aided by dominant scoring and glass cleaning from teammates Miranda Drummond (21-7) and Gabrielle Cooper (10-12). They’re 6-1, with their only loss a narrow one to a top-flight Oregon, but Syracuse still has some issues to address. Of primary concern: the Orange’s +14.3 scoring margin ranks only 61st in the country and seventh in the ACC. ‘Cuse will need more firepower than that going forward.

No. 15 North Carolina State remains a perfect 6-0 after close wins over Michigan State and George Washington. Friday’s tilt with the Colonials was the first game of the year in which the Wolfpack failed to score 70 or more points (they won 69-61), but they continue to draw strength from a balanced scoring attack. Four players are averaging double-digits: starters Grace Hunter (14.8), Kiara Leslie (13.3), and Aislinn Konig (12.8), along with Elissa Cunane, who has 13.3 points and 4.5 boards off the bench. The ‘Pack have some issues to clean up with ball  control, though. Cunane, Leslie, and starting forward Erika Cassell have a combined 27-53 assist-to-turnover ratio. That’s been mitigated so far by Hunter and Konig’s passing acumen, but likely won’t cut it in conference play.

No. 24 Miami rebounded from their loss to Iowa State last week with a pair of convincing wins. The Hurricanes knocked off Nebraska 82-68, then Temple 73-61 to move to 6-1 on the year. It’s questionable how much wins over mediocre squads like those can reflect on a team’s overall quality, but handling business in double-digit wins is important. Of note, no ‘Canes starter is averaging under nine points per game, and the team has a solid +11.2 rebounding margin. The problems are in lackluster shooting percentages (especially their paltry .604 mark form the stripe) and a troubling 114-106 assist-to-turnover ratio. Miami will need to improve in both if they want to continue justifying a top 25 ranking.

Virginia Tech is, somewhat improbably, 7-0. The Hokies started their week by handily defeating Chattanooga, 74-59. They ended it with a wholesale 85-57 demolition of Richmond. In between was a nail-biter against Villanova, but a two-point win (61-59) is a dub, nonetheless. Hot shooting continues to propel this team, but it’s the selflessness and precision in coach Kenny Brooks’ offense that is facilitating the great looks they’re getting. Tech is averaging 16.3 assists per game, compared to only 9.9 from opponents, and that advantage isn’t the work of one or two gifted passers. Four of five starters are averaging at least two dimes a game, evenly sharing the work of getting good shots on every possession. The Hokies will need some increased production from a bench that hasn’t shown out much thus far, but they remain a difficult team for anyone to play, as of now.

Boston College had an outstanding weekend. After resting up through week three’s work days, the Eagles spent Saturday dropping an Acme filing cabinet on Loyola (MD) 73-47, then dropped an entire office block of misery on Rider, beating the Broncs 112-61 on Sunday. Those wins moved them to 6-0 on the year, and their remaining schedule prior to conference play could well see them with a still-unblemished record when the face their first ACC opponent in Georgia Tech on Jan. 3.

Florida State brought the heat coming off last week’s 45-58 loss to LSU. The Seminoles drubbed Eastern Kentucky 62-45, and clocked a very impressive 71-67 win over No. 12 Iowa. FSU is a team full of players who know and excel in their roles. The scoring is solid across the board, but the real key lies in what players are doing in other categories. They’re either good-to-great rebounders (Kiah Gillespie 9.1, Valencia Myers 8.4) or good-to-great passers (Nausia Woolfolk and Nicki Ekhomu have 17 and 29 total dimes on the year respectively.) The Seminoles also own the second-best scoring defense in the conference behind Virginia Tech. There’s a possibility FSU could play themselves into a ranking before conference play. It might not hold, but it’s on the table.

Georgia Tech has ripped off five straight wins since dropping their season opener, including whooping George Washington and Idaho State by a combined 144-106 last week. Coach Machelle Joseph’s Yellow Jackets are keying off the play of junior guard Francesca Pan and sophomore forward Lorela Cubaj. They likely won’t make any serious noise in the national conversation, but thing appear to be cohering nicely in Atlanta so far.

North Carolina is sitting at 5-2 after a somewhat perplexing week. The Tar Heels trounced UCLA 83-49, scraped out a 71-69 win over No. 17 USF, and closed out by inexplicably coughing up a solid late lead to Kentucky and losing 75-85. UNC squandered a 27-point Stephanie Watts performance against the Wildcats, getting outscored 31-15 in the final frame. The Tar Heels have all the right pieces and (finally) plenty of depth, but there is a cohesion and verve missing in key stretches so far this year. This team still has a good shot at a March Madness run, but Sylvia Hatchell’s squad needs to tighten up some rickety parts in their collective engine if they want the fast-breaking machine they aspire to be running at peak performance.

The rest of the conference appears to be stranded between scuffling (Pitt at 4-4, Duke who still can’t be written off off at 3-3), straggling (a promising but struggling 3-3 Wake Forest and a listless 3-3 Clemson) and scuttled (UVA sitting at 2-4.)

Some of those scripts can still be flipped, but some might already be beyond all hope of recovery. It’s still relatively early, but the season and its results are drawing inexorably closer to that “well they are what they are” line of demarcation.