Notre Dame women's basketball dealing with short bench against Clemson

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

If the going gets tough Thursday when the Notre Dame women’s basketball team travels to meet Clemson, Irish coach Muffet McGraw may have to look down her bench.

But it will be a quick glance — not many seated there are there ready to play.

With only four games remaining in the regular season and an Atlantic Coast Conference championship there for the taking, the Irish need to get healthy — fast.

“(Kathyrn Westbeld) probably won’t play at all, call her doubtful,” said McGraw Wednesday. “Ali (Patberg)... I don’t think she is going to play, and Mychal (Johnson) is going to try to practice today. She is questionable.”

Patberg is recovering from the flu and Johnson an injured shoulder. Westbeld has been nursing a gimpy ankle for three weeks now. 

“It continues to cause her pain,” said McGraw of Westbeld’s ankle. “It is just not healing. She is not 100 percent.

“Kat would love to practice and play in the game. But the trainer is holding her out.” said McGraw.  

With a crucial game looming at Syracuse Sunday, Westbeld's presence then would be significant.

With all the walking wounded, who can McGraw call? Junior Brianna Turner and Lindsay Allen, the only senior starter.

Those two veterans will have to shoulder a lot of the load Thursday night when the Irish (23-3, 11-1 ACC) tangle with Clemson (14-12, 3-10).

“I have been able to count on them all year,” said McGraw.

Turner, who now has 1,307 career points, is a name on virtually every postseason award watch list, including the Naismith Trophy, Wade, Wooden, and the USBWA Ann Drysdale.

Only a junior, she is a stalwart of the Irish program, just like Allen.

Turner is fourth in ACC field goal percentage at .589 and leads the conference in blocks per game at 2.4. Averaging 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds, she is not satisfied.

“I still have a lot of room for improvement,” Turner said. “I should be getting more rebounds each game. With other players out we have to all pick it up.”

Turner feels the season has flown by. 

“I am trying to enjoy the moment," she said. "Everything is happening so fast."

 And the late-season pressure and intensity is picking up as well.

“Coach keeps reminding us it is close to postseason," Turner said. "We need to take care of the little things. Practice has been really intense. We are really going after it.”

McGraw admitted to trying to take Turner and Allen out as much as possible during practice, given the beating they've taken throughout the season.

Ranked No. 7, the Irish know four more victories will give them a fourth straight ACC regular-season championship. Notre Dame is close to clinching a double-bye in the upcoming ACC postseason tourney. A lot depends on the next game or two and what success the teams chasing the Irish and co-leader Florida State have in their games.

The focus at practice for the Irish has been defense. 

“We continue to work on our defense," McGraw said. "We are getting back to fundamentals: Containing the ball, keeping it in front of us, rotating.” 

Allen is the caretaker of many of those little things McGraw wants polished. 

“She is a phenomenal athlete,” McGraw said of her point guard. “She is a rock star in the weight room.”

Allen continues to play the bulk of every game, but is tireless. 

“With Ali, it has been hard to take her out of the games,” said McGraw.

The Irish coach also has confidence in three players healthy enough to contribute now. Freshmen Erin Boley and Jackie Young have been improving, and Kristina Nelson gives McGraw some added depth at the No. 4 position.

Young was named the ACC newcomer of the week for her play last week, her second honor of the season. 

“Lately (Young's) rebounding – offensive and defensive – has been good," McGraw said. "She has been steady. Her shot selection has been good and she has been shooting more. I even want her to shoot more.”

Clemson has had its struggles this year, but plays well at home and has gained some confidence with three league victories in the past two weeks. 

“They are pretty much a whole new team from last year,” said McGraw. “They are a young team and dangerous at home.”

The Irish will return home after the Clemson game, but fly to Syracuse Saturday for an ESPN2-televised game on Sunday against No. 24 Syracuse.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) looks to make a pass around Pitt’s Aysia Bugg (2) during the Notre Dame women’s basketball game at Purcell Pavilion Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA via FTP

WHO: No. 7 Notre Dame (23-3, 11-1) vs. Clemson (14-12, 3-10).

WHERE: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C.

WHEN: Thursday at 7 pm.

TICKETS: Available.

INTERNET: Game can be seen online at WatchESPN.com (formerly ESPN 3) or through the WatchESPN app.tv

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) in South Bend

TELEVISION: None

GAME NOTES: Notre Dame has won all three meetings with Clemson . . . The Tigers are coached by Audra Smith, who is in her fourth season and has a 39-78. . . Nelly Perry, a 5-foot-10 junior leads Clemson in scoring at 12.0 per game, while 5-9 sophomore Aliyah Collier is close behind at 10.8. Collier is the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 8.5. Clemson has an 11-2 record against non-conference rivals this year. . . Irish sophomore Arike Ogunbowale leads Notre Dame in scoring at 15.1. Brianna Turner is next at 14.9 (with 7.8 rebounds) and Marina Mabrey follows at 13.5. . . Lindsay Allen has 754 career assists and needs 32 more to become the all-time career assist leader in the ACC. . . Notre Dame continues to lead the ACC in field goal percentage at .492 and also leads in 3-point field goal percentage at .384.