Lesar: Kristina Nelson's role likely to shift dramatically for Notre Dame women's basketball

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – While considerable attention this week will be on Brianna Turner and her injured left knee, other tentacles of the story will develop.

One such subplot has to do with Kristina Nelson, the No. 1-seed Notre Dame women’s basketball team’s 6-foot-4 backup post.

Her role changed in the blink of an eye just before halftime in Sunday night’s 88-82 overtime NCAA Tournament second-round win over No. 9-seed Purdue.

A bit player, who had seen only 20 or more minutes of action in four lopsided games this season, Nelson could suddenly be an integral component for the Irish (32-3) as they prepare to meet Ohio State (28-6) in the semifinals of the Lexington (Ky.) Regional Friday night (tip-off time wasn’t to be determined until late Monday night).

Notre Dame officials said Monday that any announcement on Turner's status won't come until Tuesday.

After playing just five first-half minutes against the Boilermakers, Nelson was pressed into duty for 14 minutes in the second half. She didn’t score, but had six rebounds, an assist, two steals and two turnovers.

“I know the offense really well,” said Nelson, who already has accepted an opportunity to play next season as a grad student. 

She had the year of eligibility by sitting out her sophomore season after shoulder surgery. 

“I can help with making some smart passes,'' she said. "I made a couple bad passes (against Purdue). I’m smart, and I have to be smarter on offense. Don’t force anything, let the game come to me.”

“She can score,” Carol Owens, Irish assistant in charge of the posts, said of Nelson. “She’s a good back-to-the-basket scorer. She comes up with some rebounds. Sometimes, she might get called for an illegal screen, but she’s one of our better screeners.

“There’s a balance of her rebounding strength and her ability to score on the block.”

Nelson is averaging 3.7 points in 32 games this season (49 of 112 shooting), along with 97 rebounds.

The biggest problem Nelson had was dealing with the athleticism of Purdue's 6-1 freshman, Ae’Rianna Harris. After having just two points and four rebounds at halftime, Harris finished with 12 points and eight boards. Harris couldn’t navigate against Turner, but had more success against Nelson, et. al.

“Bri’s a dominating presence on both ends, so (opponents) are always planning around her,” said Owens. “(Harris) has athleticism; she can jump out of the gym. We gave her different looks. We threw all the tricks out there defensively.”

“I was trying to give (Harris) a lot of space because I knew she was driving a lot,” said Nelson. “I’m not a shot-blocker (she has 18 blocks all season) like Bri (86) is, but I can push people out. I can be physical with her. That’s what I was trying to do.”

If Turner’s unable to go Friday, and if coach Muffet McGraw chooses to go with Nelson rather than a modified (smaller) version of the lineup, it won’t necessarily be uncharted waters.

“I’ve been in that position before (early last season),” Nelson said, referring to the first part of last season when Turner was out with a shoulder injury. “I have to re-focus my mind a little bit more; work on getting stops; do the little things.

“I’ve been preparing the whole season for this; taking it step-by-step. As long as I practice hard and do the little things, I’ll be fine.

“If we want to win, everyone has a key role on the team. I have to work on the little things, like getting defensive stops, every day in practice. We can’t let the post score as much as they did today.”

“She’s a senior,” said Owens. “She knows she has to step up. There’s not a lot of time to ponder and think about it, we’ve just gotta move on. (Nelson) understands the situation. She’s been in that situation before.”

But never when the stakes were so high.

Notre Dame’s Kristina Nelson (21) could be in line for a major change in roles with the uncertain status of Brianna Turner's knee injury. (Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin)