Notre Dame women's hoops adjusts to life after Brianna Turner

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — It might be that Notre Dame plays the low post position by committee on Friday. But that does not mean the second-ranked Irish women’s basketball team will be doing a lot new.

Faced with playing No. 11 Ohio State Friday night at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., without All-American Brianna Turner, coach Muffet McGraw only had a few days to prepare for the Buckeyes with a Plan B in hand.

Turner tore her ACL just before halftime of Notre Dame’s overtime victory in the second round of the NCAA game against Purdue on Sunday. The Irish (32-3), the Lexington Regional's top seed, will play in the first game Friday evening, against the fifth-seeded Buckeyes (28-6). No. 3 seed Texas and 2 seed Stanford meet in the nightcap, with the winners advancing to the Elite Eight stage of the tournament in Sunday’s regional title game.

Turner is Notre Dame's leading scorer at 15.3 points a game and leading rebounder at 7.1 a contest.

Kathryn Westbeld will get the start at the center position — and she is ready for the challenge, having already played that spot with the Irish this year and some last. Either Erin Boley or Jackie Young will be take the No. 4 position, with Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale and Lindsay Allen in their normal spots in the lineup.

“You know how we will be,” said Irish associate head coach Carol Owens. “You saw it last year.”

She was referring to the three-game stretch early last season when Turner injured her shoulder and could not play.

In fact, still adjusting to life after Jewell Loyd, who left a year early for the WNBA, and playing without Turner, the Irish won two of the three games and lost by 10 points at No. 1 Connecticut with their reworked lineup.

“Nothing is easy — going back and forth between the 4 and 5 — but I have played the low post before. I was a true center for a while,” said Westbeld.

And her physicality, her knowledge of the game and her passing ability gives the Irish a solid veteran to man that position.

But back to the post by committee concept. McGraw said Krisitina Nelson will be counted on for low post play, along with Boley. Boley and her freshman teammate Young will get plenty of minutes at the No. 4 position. Diamond Thompson has been cleared to play as well. The 6-foot-5 senior may be asked to help, according to McGraw. She missed last week’s first two rounds of the NCAA tourney with an illness.

“We have to rebound,” said McGraw. “Everybody has to do more. Everybody has to get one more rebound — one more basket. Probably Lindsay (Allen) doesn’t have to do more — she does so much for us already.”

Both Westbeld and Boley say they are ready for the post challenge.

“Erin has been doing a lot of good things in practice,” said Westbeld.

Boley credits her teammates for progress she has been making.

“I have been getting a lot of reps at post play,” she said.”

Playing with a lot of confidence for a freshman, Boley feels “the defensive play will be the biggest adjustment for me.” Having played her high school ball in Kentucky, Boley knows a lot of friends and family will be at the game.

“I have played the stretch 4 position most of my life, but they (her Irish teammates) are helping me out,” Boley said. “I am confident. I feel more comfortable and can play harder instead of always thinking about where I should be.”

McGraw knows the differing personnel in the post will alter some things for the Irish.

“Defense will be a big challenge without our shot blocker," she said. "And offensively we don’t have the option to go inside now to Bri. It doesn’t change what we run. We can run the same things. We just need to score in different ways."

Nelson’s solid 6-foot-4 frame can help the Irish if she plays well. In fact, Nelson averages more rebounds per minute on the floor than Turner (.26 to .24). Staying out of foul trouble will be a huge factor for both Nelson and Westbeld.

“I think what really hurt us in the Purdue game was Kathryn getting into foul trouble (while replacing Turner low)," McGraw said. “We were so thin in the post anyway. We are going to move Erin down there and Coco (Nelson) has to be ready to help us.”

“I don’t think anyone can fill Bri’s shoes,” said Westbeld. “No words can say how bad I feel for Bri. I think it will take everyone doing what they can do and stepping up.”

McGraw knows lady luck has not been smiling on her and her team. The Irish lost Ali Patberg twice in the season with illnesses, lost Mychal Johnson twice — once with a shoulder injury and again later with an ankle injury. Westbeld has played in pain more than a month with a bone bruise in her ankle. And, finally, down went Turner.

“After going through this with Natalie Achonwa (a former Irish standout who suffered a severe knee injury in a NCAA regional championship game in 2014) and now Bri. It just breaks your heart to see them go down. And at this point of the season, when we are just starting to peak and things were going really well. I hate to see it happen to anyone.”

When the No. 1 seeded Irish do take the floor Friday, they will be facing Kevin McGuff, the Buckeyes' coach who was an assistant to McGraw at Notre Dame from 1996 to 2002.

“I hate playing against one of my assistants or one of my friends,” said McGraw. “I want to cheer them on, but obviously I am not going to be cheering them on this Friday.”

NCAA TOURNAMENT

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (32-3) vs. No. 11 Ohio State (28-6).

WHERE: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.

WHEN: Friday at 7:05 p.m.

TICKETS:  Available at Rupp Arena or Ticketmaster.

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: ESPN

Notre Dame's Kathryn Westbeld (33) will be part of a group of Irish players who will try to fill the role of injured center Brianna Turner, Friday night against Ohio State in Lexington, Ky. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)