Is Notre Dame women's basketball still ready for tournament success?

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — One week ago Notre Dame was playing its best basketball of the season

The Irish women had won 15 consecutive games, captured both the regular season and postseason tourney titles in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It had just disposed of Robert Morris in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

They were ready for what was anticipated to be a deep run in the NCAA tourney.

Then Brianna Turner’s season was ended by a tear to the ACL in her left knee just before halftime of the second round, overtime victory over Purdue. And the Irish immediate future was clouded.

Are the Irish still ready?

They certainly have the tools to continue to post Ws even without Turner.

“It doesn’t change our goals,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Turner’s injury. “But it may change our odds.”

Yes, Notre Dame is looking to reach the Elite Eight for the eighth time and is playing in its 15th Sweet Sixteen, with this year being the eighth straight time.

The Irish will be led by their lone senior starter, Lindsay Allen, starting her 148th consecutive game — every game since she arrived as a freshman — the most in school history.

But keys to the Irish success in Friday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup with Ohio State at Rupp Arena are likely to lie in the efficiency and prowess of the Notre Dame youth brigade.

It will not be surprising to see four sophomores and freshmen on the court at the same time for Notre Dame — second-year players Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale and freshmen Jackie Young and Erin Boley. That young quartet accounted for 62 of the Irish 88 points in that 88-82 victory over the Boilermakers.

Don’t count those kids out.

Kathryn Westbeld, a junior, is likely to start in the post in Turner’s spot, but McGraw plans to use her, Kristina Nelson and even Boley at that spot during the game.

“We have really good guards, so I think we can still run a lot of the same stuff (on offense),” said McGraw. “She (Turner) is a huge presence for us defensively. So that’s going to force us to make some changes defensively.”

The top-seeded Irish are 32-3, while Ohio State, a No. 5 seed enters Friday's matchup with a 28-6 record. The winner Friday will meet either Texas or Stanford for the right to advance to next week’s Final Four in Dallas.

Guard Kelsey Mitchell is the primary offensive weapon for the Buckeyes. She averages 22.7 points a game and is capable of scoring even more. “Somebody has to be assigned to tag her from the moment the transition begins,” said McGraw. “We will have a lot of people doing that.”

“We have to make her miss, make sure we’re slowing her down and make sure we know where she is at at all times,” said Allen.

McGraw knows the Buckeyes are deep. “They have so many post players,” she said. “It doesn’t matter which ones are playing, and they have some great guards.” Ohio State has won 14 of its last 15 games.

Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff, an assistant to McGraw from 1996 to 2002, feels the Irish indeed will be ready to compete without Turner.

“They had this week of practice to prepare themselves without her,” McGuff said at a press conference in Lexington Thursday. “They may play a little differently in how we guard them and so forth. But I know they will be ready, they’ll be prepared and they probably have a real sense of urgency to prove to everybody that they’re still the great team they were before she got hurt.”

Westbeld may be the calming influence in the low post for the Irish. The junior has played there before and is known as one of the best top basketball IQ players on the Irish squad.

“I can get through the pain,” Westbeld said, talking about the bone bruise in her ankle that has slowed her since the North Carolina game on Jan. 22. “I am not myself yet, a bit slower than normal and my vertical (jump) is not as much as I had.”

Nonetheless she has been playing her best basketball. She shoots at a .591 percentage, best on the team with Turner sidelined. She has great court vision, can pass and rebound with the best of the Irish.

Notre Dame indeed will be hoping for an offensive explosion from one or more of its wings. Ogunbowale has a season high of 30 points (against Central Michigan), Mabrey scored 29 (against Clemson) and both of them have multiple games with more than 20 points. Likewise Young and Boley are capable of putting up impressive offensive numbers.

McGraw, like always, is more concerned about the defensive effort to be extended Friday night. “We have to take more charges and have to be more intense containing the ball because we don’t have our shot blocker (Turner) behind us,” she said.

The Irish are riding an 18-game winning streak against Big Ten teams, but notching No. 19 might be the sweetest of all them considering the roadblock that the Turner injury threw to the team.

Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen (15) celebrates a foul 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

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

GAME NOTES: Notre Dame is making its 24th appearance in the NCAA tournament and has posted an overall record of 55-22 in NCAA action. . . The Irish have won at least one game in 20 of their 24 trips. . . Ohio State is in its second consecutive Sweet Sixteen and its 11th overall. . . Buckeye coach Kevin McGuff is 350-142 as a head coach. He is in his fourth year with the Buckeyes. . . Kelsey Mitchell, a 5-foot-8 junior leads the team in scoring at 22.7 points a game. She is the all-time Big Ten leader in three points baskets with 336. Stephanie Mavunga scores at an 11.8 per-game pace and leads the team in rebounding with 11.3 boards per outing. A senior, 6-2 Shayla Cooper averages 10.5. . . The last time Ohio State reached the Elite Eight was 1993, when they went on to become the national runnerup. Notre Dame was there two seasons ago. . . The Irish have made 199 three-point baskets this season. The 2015-16 Notre Dame team holds the all-time record in that category with 207 three pointers.