Lesar: Brianna Turner's knee becomes Notre Dame's focus as Irish survive in OT

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Remember Natalie Achonwa?

There was a flashback Sunday night.

When Brianna Turner went down with an injury to her left knee late in the first half Sunday night, the first thing to come to mind was Achonwa’s injury against Baylor late in a regional championship game in 2014.

It was a devastating blow to the Notre Dame women’s basketball team then. It cost the Irish a legitimate shot at a national title.

And this one could be just as significant, depending on the extent of the injury. The Irish will know more Monday, when Turner undergoes an MRI.

Forty-eight seconds before halftime in top-seeded Notre Dame’s 88-82 overtime victory over ninth-seeded Purdue in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Turner landed awkwardly when going for a pass, down low from Arike Ogunbowale. The 6-foot-3 junior hit the floor — she does that a lot — but this time she didn’t get up.

What a way to wreck a pajama party, in the form of a late 9:10 p.m. tipoff. The joint got quiet immediately. Irish fans remember Achonwa. And they also realize what Turner means to their success down the road.

Turner rejoined her teammates after halftime, greeted by a loud ovation. No brace immobilized the knee. No ice bags were attached for swelling. Good signs, likely.

We’ll see.

She spent the second half planted at the end of the bench and was officially listed as “doubtful.”

There’s no doubt about the next challenge for the Irish (32-3): Embrace the adversity and find a way to get the job done.

Only time — and probably a whole bunch of tests — will tell about the extent of the injury.

The Irish will have a couple options: Go small, and let a team still loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans put the emphasis on the perimeter rather than the post; or, fine-tune 6-4 senior Kristina Nelson into a replacement while averaging more than the 11 minutes she’s used to playing each game.

Or, coach Muffet McGraw could try a combination of those tactics, which is the way they played against the Boilermakers (23-13).

Whatever the case, without Turner, Notre Dame was forced to make a significant philosophical shift. For the entire season, the Irish offense was inside out — look for Turner first, and consider any other options later. Now, it could be more an equal opportunity offense.

Marina Mabrey hit two huge short jumpers and two free throws in the overtime that turned the momentum.

If Notre Dame hadn’t missed six layups in the first quarter (c’mon, use the backboard), this game wouldn’t have been nearly as close.

This is the time for freshman Jackie Young to make her move. The most prolific offensive player — boy or girl — to ever play Indiana high school basketball has been a luxury this season.

Now, if Turner’s unable to return at full strength … Young is a necessity. She had 16 points against Purdue.

Without their tower of power at crunch time, the Irish offense had trouble. Two shot clock violations allowed Purdue to pull within two late in regulation. With 32.5 left in the regulation and Notre Dame leading by two, the Irish lost another inside presence when Kathryn Westbeld fouled out. Bridget Perry hit two free throws to tie the game.

Purdue’s 6-1 freshman Ae'Rianna Harris had her way inside in the second half, without Turner to confound her.

Gotta get better. At least there’s another week.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) tries to shoot past Robert Morris’ Mikalah Mulrain (21) during the Notre Dame vs. Robert Morris NCAA Division 1 tournament game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend Friday, March 17, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA