Season preview: Notre Dame women all healthy as season is set to begin
SOUTH BEND — When Notre Dame conducted an open women’s basketball practice for its fans last week, the most notable thing missing compared to the last several years was that nobody was missing.
Not only was each player on the floor, but each was deemed fully healthy. Each went full throttle. Each appeared unencumbered.
It was more of the same, too, during ND’s 104-46 exhibition throttling of Emporia State on Monday night at Purcell Pavilion.
“Yes, and thank goodness,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said of that unusual development. “Knock on wood, but everybody’s healthy, 100%.”
It’s hard to definitively pinpoint the last time ND’s experienced that sweet circumstance, but it has to go back, as far as major injuries anyway, to at least before All-American Brianna Turner was sidelined during the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Ever since that day, until now — even throughout the 2017-18 national title run, then the 2018-19 runner-up encore, then the 2019-20 freefall, then the 2020-21 pandemic surreality that accompanied Ivey’s first year in charge — the Irish have had to navigate injury setbacks, major and minor, virtually nonstop.
If they eventually have to navigate them again in 2021-22, and almost no team escapes unscathed these days, they’ll fervently hope for brief and minor setbacks.
Such becomes even more pivotal with just 10 scholarship players on the roster (the NCAA allows 15). The situation is accompanied by Ivey’s stated preference for an up-tempo style, one that best fits deep teams.
As ND continues to prepare for its regular-season opener Nov. 9 against visiting Ohio, it does so with eight of those 10 players having already proven they’re capable of positively impacting a regular-season major college basketball game.
The other two players — freshman Sonia Citron, ranked No. 16 in her class by ESPN, and freshman in eligibility Nat Marshall, No. 34 from the 2020 class — are expected to quickly grab minutes as well.
“We have a shorter roster,” Ivey said, “but every (scholarship) person on this team is really going to contribute. It’s exciting. I think everybody’s going to play a vital role this year, and we’ve added the two walk-ons (sophomore guards Trinity Cha and Sarah Cernugel) to help our numbers.”
Here come the Irish
Notre Dame, coming off a 10-10 (8-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) record in last winter’s COVID-shortened season, is headlined by forward Maddy Westbeld, who earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors while leading ND in scoring (15.2) and rebounding (7.9).
The only freshman in the nation to average at least 15 points, 7.5 boards, 2.5 assists and 1.4 steals, the 6-foot-3 Westbeld also shot 49% on 2s, 39% on 3s and 79% at the line.
“The sky’s the limit for Maddy,” Ivey said. “The fact she came in with a college body, with that confidence she had to step in, I thought that was tremendous last year. I think this year, you’re going to see the same consistency. … She has the experience now. She knows she’s going to be someone I’m going to call on and lean on, and she’s not afraid of the big moment.”
Nor is Westbeld afraid to embrace the still relatively new identity of the longtime perennial power Irish as they enter a season unranked in a major preseason poll for the first time since 2006.
“Being an underdog is the most fun part,” Westbeld claimed after ND was picked to finish sixth in the 15-school ACC by both coaches and media. “We’re going to come in and prove everybody wrong. ... We’re kind of flying under the radar, but people are going to know who we are.”
Who the Irish are, among other things, is a team returning 73% of last season’s scoring.
Individually, the returnees include senior shooting guard Dara Mabrey (11.3 ppg, 3.2 assists, 40-of-104 on 3s for 38.5%); slick freshman point guard Olivia Miles — who averaged 9.3 points and a team-leading 3.5 assists across the six games she played upon becoming the program’s first-ever early enrollee last January — junior swing Anaya Peoples (9.1 ppg, 6.0 rebounds); and streamlined junior shooting forward Sam Brunelle (8.7 ppg, 58% on 2s, 38% on 3s).
“I’ve transformed my body to the best it’s ever been,” Brunelle said definitively.
Last season, Brunelle, once the No. 1-rated high school player in the nation, was unable to run over the four months preceding the opening game due to knee issues. She wound up “trying to play catch up all season.”
This offseason, she not only dropped the 25 pounds she gained heading into last winter, but she’s visibly turned more of her weight to muscle.
Brunelle’s not alone in wildly improved health.
The 6-4 Marshall moved freely and easily in the open workout and in the exhibition after missing nearly two years recovering from the torn anterior cruciate ligament she suffered as a high school senior in December 2019.
She and 6-3 grad transfer Maya Dodson — the star of that exhibition with 24 points, 11-of-14 field goal shooting and five blocks — give the Irish a two-pronged blend of agility and skills exceeding what’s been available inside the last two years.
“Maya brings a different presence,” Ivey said of Dodson, who averaged 7.0 points and 1.6 blocks, good for third in the Pac-12, in 20.6 minutes per game during her 2018-19 sophomore season at powerhouse Stanford.
Also on the Irish roster are senior guards Abby Prohaska (4.2 ppg) and Kate Gilbert (3.8), both juniors in eligibility and the last remaining active players from the 2019 runner-up club.
Both have been sidelined for multiple extended periods by multiple health issues during their ND careers, but both, per Ivey, are full-go now.
2021-22 ND WOMEN'S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE
(Purcell Pavilion homes games in ALL CAPS; all times Eastern)
1: EMPORIA STATE (exhibition), 7 p.m.
9: OHIO, 7
11: WESTERN ILLINOIS, 7
14: At Syracuse, noon
18: FORDHAM, 7
21: BRYANT, 5
26: Georgia, 4:30, (Daytona Beach Invitational)
27: Oregon State, 7, (Daytona Beach Invitational)
2: At Michigan State, 8 (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
5: At Connecticut, noon
8: At Valparaiso, 7
12: PURDUE-FORT WAYNE, 2
19: PITTSBURGH, 2
22: At DePaul, TBA
30: At Virginia, 7
2: At Duke, 2
9: N.C. STATE, 2
13 At Wake Forest, 7
16: NORTH CAROLINA, 1
20: At Boston College, 8
23: At Pittsburgh, 2
27: SYRACUSE, 8
30: BOSTON COLLEGE, 2
3: VIRGINIA TECH, 8
6: At Florida State, 2
10: MIAMI, 8
13: At Louisville, 2
17: At Georgia Tech, 8
24: CLEMSON, 8
27: LOUISVILLE, TBA
Reviewing the additions and subtractions to Notre Dame’s active roster as a whole, there are just three scholarship newcomers in Citron, Dodson and Marshall — though Miles can kind of be counted as a fourth — compared to seven departures.
Two of those gone are graduated regulars in shooting guard Destinee Walker (second in scoring last season at 11.4, 55-of-61 on free throws) and center Mikki Vaughn (7.6 points, 1.4 blocks), joined by graduated former walk-on Nicole Benz.
The other four transferred in Amirah Abdur-Rahim (SMU), Alli Campbell (Penn State), Danielle Cosgrove (St. John’s) and Alasia Hayes (Mississippi State), though none from that quartet played regularly last season, and ND was far from unique in player movement.
“I was kind of surprised by the numbers,” Ivey said of more than 1,000 individuals around the nation entering the transfer portal over the offseason, “but I think it’s because of the legislation that passed so that players could have that one-time transfer waiver without sitting out. I think over time, it will slow down a little bit.”
Added Ivey, “I can only speak for Notre Dame, and as I recruit, I just pray I continue to bring in the right fit. … You try to do your due diligence, and I’m so excited about the group I have right now.”
The starters within that group have not been formally set, according to the coach, though Ivey indicated after the exhibition that she was pleased with the group she started first in Dodson, Westbeld, Mabrey, Peoples and Miles.