Oct. 19, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
No strangers to the upper echelon of the women’s college basketball world, Notre Dame is among one of several teams poised to make a serious charge towards cutting down the nets in Dallas come April.
The Irish return three starters (PG Lindsay Allen, F Brianna Turner and F Kathryn Westbeld) from a 2016 team which went 33-2 and won both the ACC regular season and tournament championship for the third year in a row. The Irish bolstered this lineup with the addition of both the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year (Erin Boley) and the Naismith National High School Basketball Player of the Year (Jackie Young) along with the 2015 MaxPreps National High School Player of the Year in sophomore Ali Patberg who missed last season due to injury.
Add in a total of eight players who saw action in at least 23 games last season and return a year wiser, and one can see why Muffet McGraw has brimmed with optimism as she embarks on her milestone 30th season at Notre Dame.
“I have a lot of confidence about this group because they have a lot of confidence,” says Notre Dame’s Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Women’s Basketball Coach. “I know we have a lot of depth this year. We also have a lot of talent. There’s no question. We have the best point guard in the country (Lindsay Allen). I think Brianna Turner’s the best player in the country. We’ve got great people around her. We’ve got a lot of positives.”
A captain each of the last two seasons, Allen will lead the team by example both on and off of the court. A finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award last year as the nation’s top point guard, Allen earned a spot on the preseason All-ACC team heading into her senior season. Allen has yet to miss a start in her 112-game Notre Dame career and has more assists after three years for the Irish (559) than any other player through this juncture of her career.
“Everything’s different when Lindsay’s in the game,” McGraw said. “She’s in complete control of the offense. She’s the leader on the floor. She knows exactly where everybody’s supposed to be, when to get them the ball and where to get them the ball. (She’s a) great defender. She does it all.”
The Irish get a significant portion of their post presence from a pair of seniors in Kristina Nelson and Diamond Thompson. Nelson, who goes by the nickname “Koko,” stands 6-4 while Thompson is the tallest member of the team at 6-5 and will help give the Irish the inside strength they will need in combatting taller opposition. Nelson in particular has impressed McGraw thus far during the preseason.
“Koko is probably the surprise player of the preseason right now,” said McGraw. “She’s playing really well. She did really well in our first scrimmage against the guys. (She) had 23 points and eight rebounds. She is a completely different person. She’s dominating the paint. I couldn’t be happier with where her game is right now.”
Turner returns to the team after earning All-America honors as a sophomore in 2016. Named the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 and selected for the 2017 preseason All-ACC squad, Turner has ranked among the national leaders in field goal percentage each of her two years playing for the Irish. Turner, already a strong low-post defensive force has also worked tirelessly on extending her shooting range over the offseason as a part of her rehabilitation from offseason shoulder surgery.
Turner averaged 14.6 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game in 2016. As a junior, the sky could be the limit for her.
Westbeld took large strides forward on the court in 2016, starting all 33 of her games played after not starting any games as a freshman in 2015. Westbeld is one of the team’s most versatile players on offense, possessing the ability to score both in the paint or on the perimeter, while also grabbing 5.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore.
Mychal Johnson has provided dependable minutes off of the bench during her first two years with the Irish, utilizing her speed and high knowledge of the game. Johnson’s contributions as a point guard have been particularly beneficial when Allen finds herself on the bench for foul trouble in particular.
Two players who contributed mightily as freshmen last season will be reunited with an injured classmate to create a formidable a sophomore class for Irish opponents to content with. Arike Ogunbowale (11.4 points per game) Marina Mabrey (10.7 ppg) were Notre Dame’s two leading scorers in 2016 among non-starters and overall ranked third and fourth on the team, respectively, behind only Turner (14.6 ppg) and Madison Cable (13.7 ppg). Mabrey and Ogunbowale each earned a slot on the ACC’s all-freshman team. Now, Ali Patberg, Indiana’s Miss Basketball in 2015 and a high school All-American, has recovered from knee surgery and will forge a potent trio.
A stout guard at 5-8, Ogunbowale plays a physical game that served her well on both offense and defense in a freshman year where she played 19.3 minutes per game off of the bench. A tall and accurate shooter in the mold of her graduated sister Michaela, Marina Mabrey stepped right into the team’s rotation as a freshman, earning a pair of starts. Mabrey and Ogunbowale were the first Notre Dame teammates to each average double-digits in scoring coming off of the bench. The chances of them being bench players in 2016-17 are not so sure. When McGraw met with the media prior to the start of the season she indicated that both would be starters were the season opener to be played that day.
Patberg’s road back to the court is near its end as the sophomore stands poised to make her Irish debut alas. McGraw looks forward to having Patberg direct the offense when Allen is out of the game.
“She’s somebody that has the mind of a point guard,” said McGraw. “She just has the presence of a point guard when she’s on the floor. When we’re just doing five-on-oh, she’s directing. She’s telling everybody where to go even though she’s been out for so long. She’s really smart. She knows exactly what’s supposed to happen. She’s going to be a little rusty physically, but she’s going to bring that ability to stabilize the offense when Lindsay’s not in the game.”
Last spring, America could not decide on whether Kentucky’s Miss Basketball (Erin Boley) or Indiana’s Miss Basketball (Jackie Young) should be the national high school player of the year. The Gatorade and Naismith awards were split and each got one of the honors. This fall, the two players are one and provide the Irish lineup with a pair of dynamic freshman options.
Boley has immediately established herself as the team’s top three-point shooter and, at 6-2, will be a challenging defensive matchup for Irish opposition. Young, the leading scorer — boys or girls — in Indiana high school history has impressed practice watchers thus far not only with that offense touch but also some ferocious defensive work. With these two in the fold, the Irish have potentially found two cogs in the team’s lineup through the 2019-20 season.
“I think they’re excited and anxious to see how it’s going to go in a game and how much playing time they’re going to get and what their role is going to be,” McGraw said. “It’s obviously going to be smaller than it was in high school, but it’s going to be pretty big for a freshman. I see both of them coming in and having the green light to score. That’s what they do best. I want them to be comfortable doing it and try not to do anything to discourage their confidence.”
Is consistency on the Notre Dame coaching staff a sign of a solid program or is the program solid because of the consistency of this coaching staff? The symbiotic nature of both having and retaining quality assistants has been critical in Notre Dame’s success.
Beth Cunningham played for McGraw, helping the Irish to the 1997 Final Four, and enters her fifth year on McGraw’s coaching staff. Niele Ivey, in her 10th season on the coaching staff, is connected to all seven of Notre Dame’s Final Four appearances, playing in the school’s first two appearances and helping the Irish to five more as an assistant coach. Carol Owens enters her 17th year as a McGraw assistant and her seventh season in her second stint on the Irish staff. Owens joins McGraw and Ivey as direct links to each of the program’s seven Final Fours.
This consistency and the staff’s collective excellence helped add up to a prestigious honor for their boss recently. McGraw has been announced as the 2017 recipient of the Wooden Award’s Legends of Coaching honor, presented annually to the coach for a lifetime of achievement which reflects Wooden’s legacy of success both on and off of the court. McGraw is just the third woman to win this honor, joining the elite company of Tennessee’s Pat Summitt and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer.
The ACC may have a half dozen teams ranked in the preseason polls, including 2016 national runner-up Syracuse. This would present a challenge for the Irish on its own. But McGraw knows it will take a full season of challenges to properly prepare her team for success under the bright lights of the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
The Irish will step out of conference to play host to four-time defending national champion Connecticut. Notre Dame will travel to face non-conference foes Tennessee, DePaul, Michigan State, Iowa and others. In fact, Notre Dame will play 10 out of 12 games on the road from Dec. 10 until Jan. 22 including a school-record stretch of six consecutive true road games from Dec. 10 through Jan. 2.
“I think it will challenge us,” McGraw said of this stretch of games. “It’s a good time of the year to go on the road, hopefully to warmer places. It’s good for them. They’ve got to go out there and play in front of hostile crowds. It’s only going to make us better.”
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications associate director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for Notre Dame’s women’s basketball and men’s golf teams. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.