Optimism abounds with Notre Dame women ahead of 2016-17 season

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — It is not quite like the effusiveness that the late Chicago Cub Ernie Banks always voiced with his oft-used quote of “Let’s play two.”

But there is a similar buzz this fall at the Notre Dame women’s basketball practices.

Eagerness, optimism, confidence and smiles are everywhere wrapping the Notre Dame women’s basketball team as it prepares for its season opener on Thursday, Nov. 3.

The Irish lost three seniors from the 33-2 team of a year ago, Madison Cable, Michaela Mabrey and Hannah Huffman.

Yet there are many compelling reasons supporting the positive vibes, starting with veterans Lindsay Allen and Brianna Turner. Both received plenty of all-conference and national acclaim last season and got even higher praise from Coach Muffet McGraw.

“Lindsay is the best point guard in the country and Bri is the best player in the country,” she said Monday.

Those two, and another returning starter, junior Kathryn Westbeld, give the Irish a solid nucleus on which to build the 2016-17 unit, one eager to erase the taste of last year’s loss to Stanford in the NCAA regional — depriving the Irish of a possible sixth consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Allen, a senior, rejects claims this is “her” team and is happy about her coach’s praise, but insists she only wants to be “the best point guard for this team.''

Allen, who posted 204 assists a year ago and averaged 9.3 points, now has 559 assists in her career — sixth best in the all-time ND record book. Another season like last year would put her in the range of all-time assist leader Mary Gavin, who notched 778 assists before graduating in 1988.

Thinking about her last season in an Irish uniform, Allen said, “It feels weird. It went by so quickly. I have a deeper sense of urgency this year.”

Allen knows she not only has to steady the offense, but also has to tutor a bit as well.

“I am always talking to the younger players,” she said. “I will help them whenever they need it. I have to be more vocal this year — especially at practice to be sure everyone knows what we are doing and what offense we are in.”

“We won’t look as good when she is not in the game,” said McGraw of Allen. “She is in complete control of our offense.''

McGraw joked she would like Allen in the game for 39 minutes. “If she (Allen) could decide, she would play all 40,” she added.

Mychal Johnson, a junior who boasts excellent defensive skills, and sophomore Ali Patberg are Allen’s likely replacements at the point. Patberg, who missed last season with a knee injury, is practicing but will not likely be at full strength until the end of the calendar year.

Turner, a 6-foot-3 junior who led the team in scoring (14.6) and rebounding (7.3) a year ago, soon will be at full strength after shoulder surgery last April. Just now getting into full contact work, Turner worked hard to improve her skills while facing the basket.

“Her big improvement this year will be the free-throw line jumper,” said McGraw. “We need her to face up and hit those for us. She has been working on that shot and is more comfortable with her jumper.”

It will be different for Turner, who accomplished so much a year ago while wearing a shoulder brace much of the season.

“I don’t have to worry about my shoulder any more,” Turner said. “I can just play free.”

The All-America caliber duo of Turner and Allen have plenty of help, including Westbeld, who spent much of the summer working a variety of skills.

“I worked on my perimeter game this summer and defense has to be big for me,'' she said. "I worked on it and think my lateral movement is much better. I am an upperclassman now and have to step up and be more versatile.”

Yet the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the preseason camp has been the play of Kristina (Coco) Nelson, a 6-4 senior who only saw spot duty much of last year.

“Coco is playing extremely well right now,'' said McGraw. "She is dominating in the paint. I couldn’t be happier with her game. Kat (Westbeld), Bri and Coco will rotate, but we have also looked at all three playing together. That’s not a bad look for us either.''

When Turner is ready to go all out, the Irish starting lineup likely will feature her, Allen, Westbeld and the dynamic sophomore pair of Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey, who as freshman averaged 11.4 and 10.7 points respectively.

And, then come the two McDonalds All-American freshmen — Erin Boley and Jackie Young. Both have impressed coaches and teammates during early drills.

It’s easy to see why the Irish are eager to get started.

“We will be ready to play somebody soon,” said McGraw.

• Notes: Cable and Mabrey are still involved in basketball with Cable an assistant coach for the women’s team at the University of Wisconsin and Mabrey doing a similar stint with the Miami Hurricanes. ... McGraw is entering her 30th year with the Irish.

Lindsay Allen (15) laughs as she poses for team photos between teammates Erin Boley (22) and Marina Mabrey (3) during Notre Dame's NCAA basketball media day, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune)