Brianna Turner impacts game in multiple ways for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Eavesdropping on the North Carolina women’s basketball team’s pre-game walkthrough Saturday night can learn a lot about respect.

While a few media members went about their business trying to beat deadline after the Notre Dame men’s team’s loss to Pittsburgh on press row at Purcell Pavilion, the Tar Heels were making their final preparations for Sunday’s game with the Irish women.

One name kept coming up as the scouting report came to life on the floor: Turner. “Turner’s going to be here,” said one coach, pointing to the high post. “Turner’s going to drop down low and they’re going to try to find her with a pass.”

Then there was the defensive end. The Tar Heels were lectured on her shot-blocking prowess.

By 3 p.m. Sunday, all that energy spent on those walkthrough lessons was wasted. Turner, that’s Brianna Turner, Notre Dame’s 6-foot-3 sophomore presence in the post, loomed as a major factor in an 88-54 Irish victory over North Carolina.

The Tar Heel coaches were right: Turner was a handful. They had no answer for the impact she had. Turner finished with 11 points, nine rebounds, five blocks (at least that many shots altered), and three steals in 22 minutes.

Not a bad day’s work — especially for someone who nearly had her season come to an end before it barely had a chance to begin.

As the Irish were preparing for their Thanksgiving junket to the Bahamas, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Preseason Player of the Year went down with a dislocated right shoulder. It was similar to the injury she was forced to play through all of last year.

This time, though, it was different. There was a lot of discussion about season-ending surgery to try to solve the problem once and for all. The decision came down to Turner and her parents.

“I made the decision,” said Turner, who wears a brace on her shoulder like last year. “I felt I was ready and that I could come back.

“(The decision for surgery) was up to my pain tolerance. It felt the same as last year, not a real significantly different pain. I was able to play through it last year, so I thought I could do it again this year.”

“Bri is a quiet person, but she’s not someone who likes to sit,” said Carol Owens, associate coach in charge of the post play. “She was, immediately, someone who, if she could, she wanted to play. Like any parents, they wanted to err on the cautious side. We’d re-evaluate and see how she feels.

“Once she came back, we wanted to see how she would play; how comfortable she would be. Mom was able to come watch her play. She said, ‘I support Bri.’ Bri said, ‘I want to play.’ That’s really a family decision.

“I was ready to pull the plug (when she was first hurt). The diagnosis from the doctor said it was similar to last year and it would be up to her and her family.

“There were a lot of little things I watched: When you’re a post and you’re battling and bumping inside the paint, was she flinching? Was she short-changing her right hand? Was she tentative?

“Each game she got more comfortable.”

Six games into her return from the injury, which forced her to miss six games, Turner has passed every test. Sunday, she was the most dynamic player on the floor.

Heading into the North Carolina game, Irish opponents scored 76.8 points in the six games in which Turner didn’t play and 56.0 in those she played. Teams are shooting .354 with her in the lineup and .458 with her out.

Air balls on layups happen for a reason.

That’s why head coach Muffet McGraw can safely say Turner is the best defensive post player she has ever coached.

“It’s great to have her, not just for what she does around the basket, but she can come out and guard 3-point shooters on the perimeter,” McGraw said. “She gives us that great versatility. We can switch some screens if we need to.”

North Carolina isn’t the first team to put together a game plan that revolves around Turner. And won’t be the last. Getting used to the attention — by opponents, the media and fans — is as big a challenge for her as coming back from the injury.

“I just play my game,” Turner said. “(Opponents) send me different ways, so I just play through it. We’ve got some great guards. If they’re going to focus on me, … we have so many things to worry about.”

“She’s very aggressive about how she posts up and wants the ball,” Owens said of a difference from last year. “That takes some maturity. She embraces it more (than her freshman season).

“We’re at (Texas Christian) before Christmas. Her family showed up wearing all these Brianna Turner t-shirts. She was embarrassed… and angry. She doesn’t want the attention, but she’ll do whatever she has to for her team.”

After scoring two and eight points in her first two games back, Turner has scored 20, 20, 19 and 11, while also being a force on defense.

“It was probably a mental hurdle, more than anything,” McGraw said of the recovery. “She came back ready. She (knew) she could defend, she (knew) she could score, but maybe you’re a little tentative to present your (left) shoulder instead of going up with whatever hand it happens to be.

“She has been able to overcome that.”

“I’m a lot more confident (than six games ago),” Turner said. “My shoulder wasn’t hurting, but it was, ‘what if…?’ It was just me getting over that hurdle, ‘I’ve got this.’ My teammates have got my back.”

“The shoulder takes some time to heal,” Owens said. “Then, when it heals, you have to get back to practice. You have to get your rhythm back; the flow of the game; your wind underneath you; the tempo of the game.

“She had to get comfortable being back to herself, really.”

That’s enough to cause havoc in any opponent’s walkthrough.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) grabs a rebound during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)