SOUTH BEND — Sam Brunelle, with a fitting assist from point guard Marta Sniezek, will shoot an apparent boost into University of Virginia women’s basketball attendance when Notre Dame visits the Cavaliers on Sunday afternoon.
Both Irish players grew up in Virginia, and both expressed eagerness Saturday as they talked before practice about a return to their home state.
Brunelle will be playing in the same city in which she was born, Charlottesville, and a scant 15 miles or so from her home town of Ruckersville, both places part of Greene County.
Not only does the freshman forward expect “a ton” of family and friends at Sunday’s game, but “I’ve gotten numerous messages from high school coaches I’ve played against, and they’re bringing their whole programs,” Brunelle said. “There will be a lot of basketball players there.”
An exceedingly popular figure in her home county and a consensus top-five recruit nationally, Brunelle considered the Cavaliers among her final choices before picking Notre Dame.
“Where I’m from, it’s either UVa or Virginia Tech, and I was not a Hokie fan,” Brunelle said, “so, yeah, I grew up a kind of big UVa fan.”
Nearly Brunelle’s “whole family on my mom’s side” and “a lot of friends” are among those planning to attend Sunday’s contest.
“I have no clue,” Brunelle said with a laugh when asked if she could say precisely how many supporters she’s anticipating. “I couldn’t give you a number, but from the messages I’ve been getting, it sounds like it’s gonna be a ton, so it’ll be great.”
It still won’t be enough to make seating a concern — the Cavs average 2,793 in home attendance at John Paul Jones Arena, which has a capacity of 14,593 — but it will be part of a spike in home flavoring.
After all, between Brunelle and Sniezek, the Irish have twice as many players on their roster from Virginia as Virginia has.
“That’s funny,” Sniezek said. “I didn’t know that.”
Sniezek was born just “across the bridge” in Washington, D.C., but has resided her whole life in McLean, Va., a little over two hours northeast of Charlottesville.
“Absolutely it’s special,” Sniezek said of Sunday’s matchup. “It’s going to be nice to go back home to the state where I grew up. Obviously, my family will be there, so that’s real special to me.”
Sniezek estimates she’ll have about 20 family and friends in attendance, including her parents and some of her eight siblings.
A graduate transfer from Stanford, she has played just once during her collegiate career “anywhere relatively close” to home, that being in December 2016 when the Cardinal visited George Washington.
“It’s the only time,” Sniezek said, “so it’ll be special to do it again.”
While Sniezek didn’t grow up as much a Cavalier fan as Brunelle, she adds that “they’ve always been on my radar,” and “I did consider them” when weighing college offers out of high school.
Willoughby leads Cavs
Virginia will be led into Sunday’s contest by Jocelyn Willoughby, the top scorer in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 19.5 points per game.
A 6-foot senior swing who has started all 116 games of her collegiate career, Willoughby is also pacing the Cavaliers in rebounding (7.7 per game), 3-point shooting (28-of-67 for 42%) and free throw shooting (102-of-116 for 88%).
“She can score in a lot of different ways and is a really difficult matchup for us,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday.
“Anaya (Peoples) would’ve been the only one who probably could’ve guarded (Willoughby without help) and we don’t have that,” McGraw said of ND’s freshman guard who is sidelined for the season with a Jan. 12 shoulder injury, “so trying to contain her, which nobody’s been able to totally do, will be hard. I guess trying to not let her go off for 40 would be a goal. They have other good players, too, but Willoughby really is the key.”
“She’s a great all-around player,” Brunelle concurred of Willoughby, whom Brunelle got to know well while being recruited. “She can shoot, she can drive, she’s tall and she’s a good defender.”
The Cavs and Irish each enter at 7-12 overall, with ND at 2-5 in the ACC and Virginia 2-6.
While the Cavs are trying to end a three-game skid, Notre Dame’s coming off a crisp 76-53 victory over Miami a week ago that snapped a program-record five-game home losing streak and an overall four-game dry spell.
“This team really needed a win,” Sniezek said, “because we really have worked hard, so it was great to finally get it. And like Coach said after the game, it wasn’t just that we won, but the way we won. That was very satisfying for us, so we’ve just got to continue that momentum, bring it (Sunday) and into future games.”