Lesar: Jackie Young a key part of re-tooled Notre Dame attack

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

LEXINGTON, Ky. — One change is certain: The lob pass down low is no longer in the Notre Dame women’s basketball playbook.

That page got ripped out about halftime of the Purdue game when 6-foot-3 Irish post Brianna Turner went down with a torn ACL.

Beyond that, anything is fair game for Friday night’s (7:05 tip) Sweet 16 matchup with Ohio State.

At least, it better be.

The Irish will be challenged to make up for Turner’s 15.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 86 blocks. She has been an eraser who can make up for someone else’s defensive lapse by swatting the ball in the third row.

This is a Hall of Fame coach’s time to shine. Nearly four decades of experience, along with the input from three veteran assistants. A roster loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans who know how to put the ball in the basket. And, when they want to defend, they can do that, too.

In other words, this could be Muffet McGraw’s crowning achievement. Reinventing a pretty good team in the space of a couple days is a challenge, but the pieces with which she has to work are good enough to make it a possibility.

If it’s going to work, 6-0 freshman Jackie Young will have a role in it; more than likely, a significant role.

She’ll have to do better than the 7.2 points and 4.7 boards she has averaged through the season.

But, give her the opportunity and she will.

Young’s first-ever NCAA Tournament game, last Friday against Robert Morris, was as close to a bust as the most prolific scorer in Indiana high school basketball — boys or girls — can get. She hit 1 of 6 shots from the field and scored four points, though she had nine rebounds. Against Purdue, she recovered to connect on 7 of 9 from the field and score 16 points, along with six boards.

“I came in more aggressive in the Purdue game,” Young said Thursday before the Irish practice at Rupp Arena. “Robert Morris, I was a little timid. I knew (against Purdue), I had to come in and do what coach expected me to do.”

“She and (fellow freshman) Erin (Boley), in the second-round game (against Purdue), seemed to have a better comfort level,” said Irish assistant Beth Cunningham. “It’s hard to put a finger on it. She certainly came out ready to go (against Purdue); attacked the boards really well; defended well; and was able to get going scoring-wise.”

Besides her production, Young’s intensity may have been kicked up a notch. On one scramble for a loose ball under the basket, she and a Boilermaker had possession of the ball. Young’s teeth gritted and she yanked the ball away.

“Every possession counts,” Young said. “At that time, I knew that was something I had to have. We have to take pride in our defense, dig down a little more, and get the 50-50 balls.”

“She’s got the ability (to will herself possession of the ball),” Cunningham said. “We’ve seen times of that all year, it just needs to be more consistent. It’s something we knew she could do. She just has to have the will and the want to get it done. She’s had that sense of urgency, for sure.”

Notre Dame has been in a similar situation before — early in the last two seasons. Both times, Turner’s shoulder was a problem. After missing a chunk of games each of those years, Turner chose to play through the pain and finish the year.

That’s not an option this time. The Irish have moved on and accepted the situation.

“There might be the same play, just a different look out of it,” Cunningham said of the offensive game plan. “We don’t have the same inside presence, obviously, that we’ve had before.

“It opens the floor up. We’ve got five people on the floor who can score. There are things you can’t do, but there are things you can do.”

Look for the backdoor pass to become a weapon like it was before Turner arrived.

“After the Louisville game (Feb. 6, 16 points, 7 rebounds), that’s when the coaches said I came out of my shell,” said Young, who is still quite shy around the media. “That was a little spark of what they want to see at all times.

“It’s hard to (stand out) as a freshman. You just want to fit well on the team; play a role; make sure you’re doing everything right. It was tough at the beginning, but now (she and Boley) are more comfortable and know what she expects of us.

“(The coaches) know what they want from me. I can’t be shy. I have to go out and play the game I know how to play.

“I was just trying to learn my role. I didn’t want to come out and start putting up shots. I did the little things on defense, just trying to get into the groove of things. As the season went along, the coaches expected more and more.

“Now’s not the time to be selfish.”

“(Young’s) gotta continue to be aggressive; attacking the boards,” Cunningham said. “Without Bri, it’s going to be critical — not just for her, but for everybody. They can’t sit around and wait for someone else to do it. They’ve gotta take it upon themselves to be the one.

“Rebounding is huge. (Young) has been a defensive stopper for us all season.

“She’s had some games where she’s attacked the basket well; come out assertively. I don’t think the expectations are any different than what they’ve been. We just don’t have much room for error, and it’s one-and-done.”

A lot on the line for a new approach.

An opportunity for Young to come of age.

Notre Dame’s Jackie Young (5) tries to pass around Robert Morris’ Nadège Pluviose (32) 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