Unknowns will emerge for Notre Dame in NCAA women's hoops tourney

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It’s going to happen. Maybe it’s just a hunch, but still …

Sometime, somewhere over the next three weeks of the NCAA Tournament, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team is going to need significant contributions from Kristina Nelson and Mychal Johnson.


They’re not familiar names like Brianna Turner or Lindsay Allen, but Nelson, a 6-foot-4 junior post, and Johnson, a 5-7 sophomore guard, are role players who have evolved into contributors.

Neither has gaudy stats that would suggest an impending emergence from anonymity. Nelson has collected 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds in 29 games. Her 11 blocks are a quasi-second on the team behind Turner’s 82.

Johnson has scored 2.0 points in 28 games. She has 18 assists, 15 steals and 15 turnovers to show for her floor play.

So why suggest, at some point, they will be difference-makers when the bright lights of the tournament are on? That’s what the NCAA Tournament is – an opportunity for role players to be great; a time to shine on a grand stage.

Both have been building to this: Confidence, extended minutes, big plays. With Turner in foul trouble at Florida State in late February, Nelson got the call for 13 minutes. She didn’t score and had just two rebounds, but her defense against the Seminoles’ bigs was significant.

Johnson hit a critical 3-pointer during her 16 minutes of action against Miami in the ACC Tournament.

Nobody knows when the big play is going to happen, but the opportunities will start Saturday when the Irish, the No. 1 seed in the Lexington (Ky.) Regional, host 16-seed North Carolina A&T at 6:30 p.m.

“I’ve been preparing for this (opportunity) since last year when I redshirted (because of surgery on her left shoulder),” said Nelson, who everyone calls “Coco.” “(Coaches) pull me over and tell me how much the team needs me.”

Early in the season, when post Taya Reimer walked away from the team, it changed the dynamic for Nelson and everyone else.

“I thought losing (Reimer) would be detrimental to our team on the court,” Nelson said. “She provided a lot of minutes and scoring (10.2 points, 6.1 rebounds). I didn’t let that affect the way I was playing. I didn’t want to come into a game and try to do too much just because we lost her. Everyone else could fill in the void.”

“I talked to all the posts, and told them I expected all of them to step up – whether it be one minute, 10 minutes, 20 minutes. Just be ready,” said Irish assistant coach Carol Owens, in charge of the posts.

“It’s taken a while for (Nelson) to get going in a game-like situation,” Owens said. “She had to get her confidence back; just the pace and timing of the game. (In the ACC Tournament) against Duke (8 points, 6 rebounds in 14 minutes) she was a big factor in us getting the lead back.”

One of Nelson’s hurdles has been to overcome the jitters.

“It’s really hard (not to be nervous), especially not having played last year,” Nelson said, as she looked forward to the tournament. “I’m a lot different (from last year). I’m in a lot better shape I’m really confident as a player.”

“What Coco has is the offense,” Owens said. “She has great post moves; natural skills; a natural touch around the basket.”

What Johnson feels she has is a measure of confidence that she didn’t have last season when she sat out most of the year with tendinitis in her knees.

“My coaches have confidence in me; my teammates have confidence in me,” Johnson said. “Every time I go into a game, they boost me up with confidence. If they have confidence in me, then I have to have confidence in myself.”

“You gain confidence just by having the experience of being out there on the floor; being in big-time games playing big-time minutes,” said assistant coach Niele Ivey, Johnson’s position coach. “The difference between Mychal and a lot of our guards is her ability to shoot and her ability to play defense. She brings a lot of defensive energy, which we’ll need.”

The challenge is for Johnson to stay engaged, ready at a moment’s notice to make an impact.

“I always stress, ‘You can’t control your minutes, so whenever you’re given that opportunity, seize the opportunity,” said Ivey.

That’s the mandate for both Nelson and Johnson.

Bet on it. Their chance will come.

Unsung Kristina Nelson (21) could be a hero for Notre Dame Irish in the NCAA Tournament. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)