Resilient Prohaska ready for return in NCAA Tournament

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
Notre Dame's Abby Prohaska (12) during an NCAA basketball game against Ohio on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin)

SOUTH BEND — Even when Abby Prohaska tries to keep it simple, she can’t help herself. Her travails tend to defy simplicity.

“There’s probably a more scientific name you could give it,” Prohaska said this week as she detailed the reason for her latest extended absence from the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, “but I had eye surgery. I had broken my occipital floor, so some tissue had slipped into the cracks, and they had to just go in and reconstruct that.”

Ah, yes, just your simple ol' everyday occipital occurrence, with some tissue slipping into cracks, accompanied by some reconstruction.

No biggie. Except that it was, and except that things like this have happened to Prohaska at a rate that long ago left fair in its dust.

“She’s had injuries that I’ve never even heard of,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said Wednesday of her senior guard, “and the way that she’s fought back, she’s just very resilient.”

The signature setback remains Prohaska’s October 2019 diagnosis of bilateral pulmonary embolism.

“In other words, I have a blood clot in each of my lungs,” Prohaska would share in a matter-of-fact tweet a few weeks later as she tried to keep that one simple, too.

That one, though, could’ve been “life-threatening,” per a Mayo Clinic description of the condition, and indeed, the red-haired Prohaska was open in sharing that initially it basically scared the freckles off her.

Notre Dame's Abby Prohaska (12) and Fordham's Anna DeWolfe (2) fight for a loose ball during the Notre Dame vs. Fordham University NCAA women's basketball game Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

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In the long run, however, between her age, overall health, the support around her and an unrelenting commitment to beat it, Prohaska conquered the blockage.

Still, it cost her all of the 2019-20 season, after the lefty played a key off-the-bench role as a freshman in ND’s run to 2019 national runner-up, appearing in 38 of 39 games and leading the Irish in charges taken.

Prohaska returned last season, even started for most of it, but missed the final four games for “mental health” reasons.

Then this season, she appeared her familiar sparkplug self as a backup, drawing charges and lunging for loose balls while helping ND to an 11-2 start, yet it abruptly dissolved to hold-everything again when she suffered a concussion in the Dec. 22 win at DePaul.

That cost her another four games.

She returned Jan. 23, but then sustained that eye injury in Notre Dame’s 69-66 stunner over No. 3-ranked North Carolina State on Feb. 1.

It has sidelined Prohaska for the last nine games.

Aching to play

Now she’s ready to roll again as the fifth-seeded Irish (22-8) get set to face 12th seed UMass (26-6) in an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Norman, Okla.

Prohaska says she’s feeling 100% following full-scale practices for the last week plus. Matching that, all the formerly intense black, purple and red in her eye is now gone.

Most of all, she’s just aching to play — and she does not anticipate harnessing her full-speed approach in light of everything that’s happened.

“It all comes back to wanting to win,” Prohaska said. “I want it so bad that sometimes I lose sight of if I should dive for the ball or if I shouldn’t, so it’s a blessing and a curse I guess sometimes, but I definitely just want to show the younger ones what it takes, and just brush off on them.”

Prohaska certainly does that, according to her coach.

“I’m so happy to have Abby back,” Ivey said. “She brings NCAA experience, she brings that toughness we need defensively. She’s always come up with the 50-50 ball. She’s the heart and soul, the glue of our defense. She’s the leader on defense. … Her maturity, experience, I think it’s gonna be huge for this group.”

Apr 7, 2019; Tampa, FL, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Abby Prohaska (12) attempts to pass the ball as Baylor Lady Bears guard Chloe Jackson (24) and Lady Bears forward NaLyssa Smith (1) defend during the first half in the championship game of the women's Final Four of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While some other factors may be at play in the breakdown as well, it’s impossible to dismiss the cavernous gap to Notre Dame’s record with Prohaska (15-2) and without Prohaska (7-6).

“I wanna help my team,” Prohaska said. “I wanna be the best teammate I can be, the best player I can be, so that’s what it ultimately comes down to, just that drive to always be your best. I mean, we’re so young, especially this year, so I’m just trying to influence everybody I can.”

Some of that influence happens through words, some through her example.

“Any time she gets cleared (medically), she’s the first person in the gym,” Ivey said. “She’s had some unfortunate luck with injuries throughout the entire course of her career, and I’m hoping this run for us is really beneficial for her, because she’s fought through so much.”

Through that fight, Prohaska has refused to become obsessed with why.

“I think every athlete that’s gone through an injury has faced a lot of adversity,” Prohaska said, “but honestly, I don’t feel like there’s been a ton holding me back. I’ve always just kind of had the thought process that I’m coming back. I’m going to be back stronger than I was before.”

Assessing the future

Between being sidelined in 2019-20 and the NCAA granting virtually all players an extra year in response to the pandemic, Prohaska has two more seasons of eligibility that she could take.

A senior in class standing, she says she hasn’t decided whether she’ll return.

She at least hints, though, that it might be time for the next chapter in her life.

Notre Dame's Abby Prohaska (12) looks to pass around Ohio's Erica Johnson (4) during an NCAA basketball game on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

“It’s all or nothing for me personally,” Prohaska said of how special being back in the NCAA Tournament is, “but also just knowing that we all are going through a lot. We’ve all been through a lot together, we all went through COVID together (including a pause that led to the postponement of a couple games), and we’re back, so it’s just proving a point and just reminding ourselves to leave it all on the floor.”

Prohaska adds that the all-on-the-floor mentality is the most meaningful thing she can share with her teammates from her own tourney experience in 2019.

“It’s gonna be hard,” Prohaska promised of the trail ahead. “It’s a battle. It’s a new season, everybody’s desperate, you’re one and done, so just coming in and literally giving everything you have is probably the most important piece of advice I could give.”

Because of her eye injury, Prohaska will be sporting a protective face mask on the court, but she says her adjustment to wearing one has been “fairly easy” and that she won’t mind a bit given that it means she can play.

“I just try to remind myself, all the greats had to wear a face mask,” Prohaska said, “so maybe this is just my claim to fame. It’s gonna be a face mask my senior year.”

There goes Prohaska again, trying to make something not so simple sound simple.