Time for ND women to protect their basketball paint

Ken Klimek
Tribuune Correspondent

After five straight trips to the NCAA Final Four, it is no secret the Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team has huge aspirations heading into the 2015-16 season.

Realizing those aspirations may rest this year on the shoulders of the Irish bigs — the post players.

There is no doubt that the Irish are in good hands with Lindsay Allen at the point, Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable on the wings and a bevy of talented off-the-bench backcourt talent available. The Irish like to just “go,” but the post players are being counted on to do much more than they did a year ago to not only help the offense, but, more importantly, to bolster a defense that let them down at times last year.

Though the Irish rebounded well a year ago, “Our defense was not strong enough,” said Irish Coach Muffet McGraw of her team’s play in the paint. “It has been stressed this preseason.”

That means some improvement must come from junior Taya Reimer and sophomores Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld — with some help potentially coming from 6-4 junior Kristina (Coco) Nelson, who sat out last year after having shoulder surgery.

That group, still young, already has been impressive but has loftier goals. Reimer, still nursing a sore Achilles, a problem that started late last season, will not play in the team’s exhibition opener Saturday at noon at home against Wayne State.

“We are just resting her now,” said McGraw. “The Achilles flared up again during the Pan Am Games.’’

Reimer came on strong in the second half of last season after a two-game hiatus in December, and averaged 10.2 points and 6.1 rebounds a game. She played well in the ACC and NCAA tourney and was a silver medalist on the USA team in the Pan Am games this summer. She is expected to play in the regular season opener against Bucknell.

Reimer, by the way, roomed with Breanna Stewart, the Connecticut All-American, during the Pan Am Games.

“We got along really well,” Reimer said of her Huskie arch-rival. “We are still in touch with each other and talk at least weekly.”

Turner, only a sophomore, was selected as the Athletic Coast Conference preseason player of the year — and expects to see plenty of double teams throughout this campaign.

“I feel more mature this year,” Turner said. “I still have to work hard, but there is not as much learning as when I came in as a freshman.”

Nonetheless, Turner was a quick study, averaging 13.8 points and 7.9 rebounds on last year’s national runner-up team.

Westbeld, another sophomore, gives the Irish a bonus dimension when she is playing inside. Any overplaying by the defense and she can pop outside and shoot the 3.

“Rebounding will be huge for us,” the versatile, 6-2, Westbeld said. “We need to get the rebound, outlet and get our break going.”

She averaged 6.7 points and 4.4 rebounds while playing both in the post and on the wing a year ago. As a team Notre Dame had a plus 8.2 rebound advantage per game, and the bigs want to boost that number this year.

A surprise ingredient could be Nelson. A 6-4 junior, “She is really good at posting up and looking for the ball,” said McGraw. “She is hard to guard when she gets good position.”

Nelson did play sparingly as a freshman and is looking forward to contributing more this season.

“I feel so much better than when I came in as a freshman,” Nelson said. “I am in shape and moving better, but now I have to get in game shape.”

Nelson recognizes what is needed.

“We can’t let them score inside,” she said. “We have to be in the right spots in the rotation and just work harder.”

The Irish are known for their up-tempo brand of ball.

“We want to score 88 a game,” McGraw joked recently to a number of season ticket holders, likely referring to a free sandwich giveaway if the Irish score at least 88 in home games.

The Irish averaged 79.8 points last year and outscored their opponents by 20.1 points per game.

Sometimes the Irish even play a four-guard lineup, one that accentuates the running game.

Yet, count on it in close games and the big games that the post players’ effort and success likely will hold the ultimate key to Irish fortunes.