Tough Turner is good for Notre Dame

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

Reality smacked Notre Dame freshman forward Brianna Turner in the face twice in the first 24 seconds of Monday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball showdown with Duke.

Reality as in Duke’s 6-foot-3 senior center Elizabeth Williams, who Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw believes could be the top choice in April’s WNBA draft.

First, Williams maneuvered to win the tip from the 6-foot-3 Turner, who hasn’t lost many opening jumps this season. Then as Turner got herself in position to corral Ka’lia Johnson’s missed 3-pointer, Williams nudged Turner just enough to push Turner aside so she could grab the rebound and put it back in for a 2-0 Duke lead.

As Turner ran down the court, you could almost see the lava and steam beginning to gather inside her head, lava and steam that Turner and her other frontcourt teammates would collectively let out as fourth-ranked Notre Dame dug itself out of an early 14-5 hole to capture its 10th straight victory of the season, 63-50, at Purcell Pavilion.

Irish associate head coach Carol Owens, the tutor of Notre Dame’s post players for the past 15 seasons, could sense the eruption that would announce to the women’s basketball world that toughness again had taken up residence along Notre Dame’s front line.

“Brianna is learning as she plays and making the adjustments she needs to make in games,” said Owens, whom McGraw calls unabashedly “the best post coach in the country,” just a few hours before the Irish (24-2 overall, 11-1 for first place in the ACC) flew to Atlanta for Thursday night’s game at Georgia Tech (14-12, 4-8 ACC).

Notre Dame’s improvement, which has become evident during the 10-game winning streak and maybe even more so in the last couple of games of it, is the result of the work Owens has done with Turner, 6-3 sophomore Taya Reimer, 6-2 freshman Kathryn Westbeld and 6-2 senior Markisha Wright.

That work actually began during preparations for the Women’s Final Four last season when Notre Dame knew it was going to play without 6-3 Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a season- and Irish career-ending knee injury against Baylor. Reimer, Wright and Kat Nelson (who is being redshirted this year after shoulder surgery) were tasked to replace Achonwa but couldn’t and thus Connecticut manhandled the Irish post in a 79-58 victory to claim a second-straight NCAA championship.

Turner and Westbeld, a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans, came aboard last autumn, and while there have been some bumps along the way – Turner’s shoulder injury in a victory over Maryland and a 76-58 setback to UConn without her plus Reimer’s absence for personal reasons during a 78-63 loss at Miami – Westbeld’s emergence and some steady play by Wright along with continued improvement from Turner and Reimer now have given the Irish a reason to boast about their posts.

“I always felt like it was going to be a process,” Owens said. “The post development takes a little more time than the guards. We were right where we needed to be. As long as we are improving through the course of the season, I’m happy with that. Progress, whether it’s fast or slow, it doesn’t matter as long as it is progress.”

While Owens and McGraw would like to see more offense from Turner, Reimer and Co., they aren’t unhappy with what they see on the defensive end, especially in the way the young Irish posts reacted to Duke’s physical play. After being outrebounded 6-0 at the start, the Irish more than held their own against one of the nation’s best rebounding teams (Duke won the battle of the boards 45-37).

Even better, Turner and Reimer, who each had one blocked shot by halftime, finished with four and three, respectively, to give Notre Dame a 7-1 advantage in that statistical category.

“Especially on the defensive end, I thought we showed some toughness through the course of the game,” Owens added. “I thought we adjusted well, and that was what I was looking for. There was a sense of focus for this game.”

Turner and Reimer never looked meaner in the second half and Williams and Duke seemed reluctant to go into the paint.

“It helps that we’re in a conference that has two of the best post players in the country in Williams and (Wake Forest’s Dearica) Hamby,” Owens said. “Two seniors with lots of experience. Going against them will prepare us as we go along. I think they give us added experience that I can’t teach.”

Notre Dame benefits when freshman Brianna Turner plays with a little bit of an edge.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

WHO: No. 4/4 Notre Dame (24-2, 11-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Georgia Tech (14-12, 4-8)

WHERE: McCamish Pavilion (8,600), Atlanta

WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m.

TV: Comcast Cable Channel 101, FOX Sports Indiana Plus, FOX Sports Midwest Plus, ESPN3, WatchESPN

RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9), WHPD-FM (92.1), watchnd.tv

LIVE STATS: ramblinwreck.com, und.com

WORTH NOTING: This is the second meeting between the teams this season with Notre Dame having won 89-76 on Jan. 22 at Purcell Pavilion. ... Jewell Loyd had 29 points thanks to 10-of-17 shooting and a 9-for-9 performance from the free throw line, with a team-high seven assists, five rebounds and three steals; Taya Reimer had 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Brianna Turner had 14 points (on 6-of-7 shooting), four rebounds, one assist and one block for the Irish, who shot 56.5 percent. ... Notre Dame outscored Georgia Tech 24-14 on points after turnovers and 14-0 on fast-break points. ... Notre Dame leads the series 3-0. ... The Yellow Jackets are currently on a three-game losing streak, with home losses against Syracuse (65-60) and N.C. State (65-64) and a 64-59 loss Sunday at Miami. ... Since the loss at Notre Dame, Georgia Tech is 2-4, with the wins coming at Virginia (68-62 on Jan. 25) and against visiting Virginia Tech (79-71 on Feb. 1). ... The victory over Georgia Tech was the fourth in what has become a season-long 10-game winning streak for the Irish, who are coming off a 63-50 victory over No. 10/11 Duke on Monday night in South Bend. ... The Irish are seeking their 25th victory for the sixth straight season and seventh in the last eight years. ... Turner, a 6-foot-3 freshman, continues to lead the nation and ACC in field-goal shooting at 68.2 percent; sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen is first in the ACC in assists per game (4.9) and second in assist/turnover ratio (2.03) and junior Michaela Mabrey is second in the ACC in 3-point shooting at 39.1 percent. ... The Irish lead the ACC in the following categories (with their national ranking in parentheses): field-goal shooting (49.7 percent, third), points per game (84.0, fourth), margin of victory (+23.8, fifth), assists per game (18.7, sixth), 3-point shooting (38.6 percent, seventh), assist/turnover ratio (1.26, 12th) and personal fouls per game (14.8, 21st).

WORTH QUOTING: "Kaela Davis is a nightmare matchup."

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who likely will assign junior Jewell Loyd the task of guarding the Georgia Tech sophomore forward.