No. 1 Notre Dame women's basketball gets first exhibition test

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – Sporting a new national No.1 rank and featuring a blend of highly-acclaimed veterans and a pair of McDonald’s All-American freshmen, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team welcomes Roberts Wesleyan College for an exhibition game at 7 p.m. Thursday at Purcell Pavilion.

Fans of the 2016-17 Irish will get their first looks at freshmen Jackie Young and Erin Boley, along with a look at Ali Patberg, Indiana’s Miss Basketball two seasons ago. Patberg sat out last season with a knee injury, but is ready to get her first taste of collegiate action in the exhibition.

Roberts Wesleyan College won the NCCAA national championship a year ago and is under the leadership of Gary Andrews, a former head coach at St. Francis College in Indiana. Taya Andrews, a 5-foot-9 freshman and the niece of the head coach, played her high school basketball in Fort Wayne.

A prohibitive favorite, Notre Dame coach Muffet Mcgraw still wants to see plenty of intensity and success in a number of things the Irish have worked on during fall camp. “Defense. I want to set the tone. I want to see what kind of defense we’re going to be able to play. They’re a really up-tempo, 3-point shooting type of team. They run some dribble-drive stuff. So we’ve really got to be able to guard them. Then offensively, I just want to be able to execute. You can’t control the ball going into the basket. But we want to run and we want to execute.”

McGraw knows the Irish will score- and likely score in big chunks during the season, but she remembers last year’s two losses (Connecticut and Stanford). “We gave up some 90 points in those two games. That is what we have to stop this year,” she said after a recent practice.

This will be the first test of the season for McGraw, now in her 30th season with the Irish. She started the fall campaign by being named the 2017 Wooden Awards Legend of Coaching recipient, an honor named after the late, great John Wooden. She is only the fourth women’s coach to receive the honor, joining the late Pat Summit of Tennessee, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford and Geno Auriemma of Connecticut.

McGraw knows the Irish have a big target on their back with the No. 1 ranking, but she is used to it. That target is always on the Notre Dame backs during Atlantic Coast Conference play. Seldom have the Irish been underdogs in the last several seasons.

The anticipation can add to a long, grueling season. But the Irish coach does not want the pressure of being No. 1 to affect her players. “Our key is we’ve got to have fun. “We’ve got to enjoy this journey. We’ve got to be able to enjoy the victories and enjoy the little things. That’s where you can’t let that level of expectation color your enjoyment of whatever is going on”

Irish followers will see plenty of three of last year’s starters, center Brianna Turner, point guard Lindsay Allen and forward Kathryn Westbeld. Kristina (Coco) Nelson is sure to get ample playing time in the post, while Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey, both sophomores, also will see plenty of action after impressive freshmen seasons for last year’s 33-2 Irish.

McGraw has called this team perhaps the most talented she has ever had at Notre Dame. But she wants all that talent to blend, mature and develop during the long campaign and the rigors of ACC play.

It’s time for a challenge. The Irish women are tired of playing against each other and the men they practice against all fall. “I think it will be a nice change for them. I think they are ready to play somebody else. The guys beat up on us good every day. So it will be nice to play against someone that maybe can’t dunk,”she said, laughing.

Irish followers will be looking to see who will replace last year’s graduates – Madison Cable, Marina Mabrey and Hannah Huffman. Cable, clearly the glue of the Irish a year ago, leaves a void hard to replace. But there are candidates. McGraw cited Westbeld, Mychal Johnson (after she recovers from sprained wrist, and even the freshman Young as obvious candidates. “Jackie does so many things well,” McGraw said.

Thursday’s exhibition may answer a number of those early-season questions.

Cunningham, Ivey to join Ring

Associate head coaches Beth Cunningham and Niele Ivey will each be enshrined into Notre Dame's Ring of Honor.

Ivey’s presentation will come during the Dec. 5 home game against Valparaiso while Cunningham’s date is set for Jan. 29 as the Irish play host to Virginia.

Ivey’s number 33 and Cunningham’s number 21 will join the number 00 of Ruth Riley and the number four of Skylar Diggins above the Purcell Pavilion court.

Beth (Morgan) Cunningham graduated in 1997 as the program’s all-time leading scorer at 2,322 points although she has since been narrowly passed by Diggins with her 2,357. Morgan helped the Irish to their first Final Four appearance in 1997 as a two-time honorable mention All-American and a two-time All-BIG EAST selection.

Ivey co-captained the 2001 national championship team along with Riley and earned All-America accolades that season. Ivey was a finalist for the 2001 Nancy Lieberman Award as the country’s best point guard and claimed the 2001 Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award for the nation’s best player 5-foot-8 or under. Ivey was a three-time All-BIG EAST pick who would go on to play in the WNBA for four years.

Ali Patberg (20) sits with head coach Muffet McGraw during Notre Dame women's basketball media day Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. Roberts Wesleyan (Exhibition)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149)

WHEN: Thursday at 7 pm

TICKETS: -- Available by calling (574) 631-7356, going online to UND.com/buytickets or visiting the Gate 9 ticket windows today.

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) in South Bend (No television and no internet stream available).

GAME NOTES: Notre Dame will be without the services of junior Mychal Johnson. Johnson sprained her wrist last week and is still recovering ... Roberts Wesleyan College is located in Rochester, N.Y. ... Head coach Gary Andrews is in his first season at Roberts Wesleyan, but he had been the coach for 13 years at St. Francis College in Indiana. While at St. Francis, Andrews coached his team to the NAIA Div II national championship in 2013-14.