SOUTH BEND — Mixing a short bench with three games in three days is not a standard recipe for success, but Notre Dame will try to concoct a winning dish from those ingredients this Thanksgiving weekend at the Cancun Challenge.
The Irish (4-2) face Florida Gulf Coast (5-1), South Dakota State (3-2) and No. 21-ranked South Florida (5-1) on successive days in the round-robin women’s basketball gathering.
The last time ND played three straight days with this little scholarship depth, it fell 74-72 to Louisville in the 2018 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament finale — and that was an Irish club that would go on to win the national title.
“Three games in three days is incredibly challenging for a team that’s playing six and seven people,” ND coach Muffet McGraw said Monday. “It’s gonna be tough. You look back to our championship team, in that ACC Tournament, we were exhausted for the third game, so I’ve gotta figure out a way to get some of the walk-ons in the game to give us a bit of a rest, even in a close game.”
ND remains at just seven available scholarship players. Mikayla Vaughn is still recovering from a sprained knee suffered in the Nov. 5 opener, while Abby Prohaska is out at least until January after being diagnosed in October with blood clots in her lungs.
The Irish, though, also head to Cancun off of a boost from their 76-72 road victory Saturday over then-No. 21 Michigan.
“Our team was talking about how this was a game we really wanted to win to prove we should be in the top 25,” graduate transfer guard Destinee Walker said. “I think we all felt the fire in that game, really wanted to win, and it showed.”
Walker contributed an electric 27-point, four-steal performance that featured 5-of-8 shooting outside the arc.
“I think the staff was even more excited (than the players),” McGraw said, “knowing what it means to beat a ranked team on the road. It gave us a great shot of confidence. We played well against Michigan State (a 72-69 home loss to the now-No. 15 Spartans), but didn’t finish, so (the win over Michigan) was great to see. We had so many big plays down the stretch and such poise for a young team.”
“I think it showed some of what we’re capable of,” said sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert, who had 12 points and four steals in the victory, “and it showed us even when we don’t play our best game, we’re still able to win. We can still play better.”
Gilbert’s best game of her injury-shortened freshman season happened to come on Thanksgiving, when she struck for 14 points in 33 minutes off the bench during an 81-65 Vancouver Showcase win over Gonzaga.
“I haven’t thought about that much,” Gilbert said. “That was kind of a break-through point for me, but shortly after that, I got hurt (suffering a shoulder injury Nov. 29 against Iowa that required season-ending surgery), so I try not to think about it too much, because it’s one of the last games I played, but it’s nice to know I did that.”
Walker and ND point guard Marta Sniezek already have played multiple times on Thanksgiving, while with North Carolina and Stanford, respectively.
“It is surreal,” Walker said of playing on the holiday, which for her has included participating in the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas and the Paradise Jam at the Virgin Islands, “but I love this team, I love my coaches. We’re a new team, but we have a lot of chemistry already. All of us love each other, so I’m excited to take this trip with this team.”
The Irish departed campus shortly after 5 a.m. Tuesday morning.
“It’s a business trip,” McGraw said. “It’s something where we are giving them a great opportunity to have a little fun and enjoy the sunshine, but we’re there for a reason and that’s all about basketball.”
“There’s a tough side,” Gilbert said, “because I’m going to miss the food at home, but my family, they’re very supportive and they’re actually making the trip. I’ll be around family and friends, so I’ll be happy.”
ND’s depth could be stretched right away, with its first matchup coming against up-tempo Gulf Coast, averaging 85 points. The Eagles are jacking up 40 3-point tries per game and making 35.7% of them.
The Irish are scheduled to play their middle game, against South Dakota State, likely less than 20 hours after the completion of their first one.
The finale will come against a South Florida club whose only loss is 58-46 at No. 2 Baylor and whose wins include a 64-57 victory over then-No. 15 Texas.