Notre Dame will have steady hand at point in Lili Thompson

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Lili Thompson’s new to wearing a Notre Dame uniform, but she’s not new to wearing out big-time women’s college basketball teams.

Just ask Notre Dame. Or UConn.

Both heavyweights know painfully well about the 5-foot-7 point guard.

In fact, the last victory that Thompson was a part of — almost 19 months ago — happened to come against the Irish, when Stanford stunned top-seeded ND 90-84 in a 2016 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game.

More than just being part of that win, Thompson glistened in it. She dished a career-high nine assists, against no turnovers, to go with 11 points.

“Yeah, we’ve talked about it a little bit in the locker room,” Thompson said with a sheepish smile Thursday of her new teammates. “I already knew some of these girls through AAU and playing against them, so you talk. But it’s no big deal. It’s been awhile, there’s a little bit of time separation, and we’re all on the same side now.”

The Irish are thrilled about that much, especially after losing back-to-back four-year starters at point guard in Skylar Diggins and Lindsay Allen.

Thompson, in her final year of eligibility, bridges the gap to a trio of highly regarded point-guard recruits over the next two years in Katlyn Gilbert, Jordan Nixon and Anaya Peoples.

“She can handle the ball,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Thursday of Thompson. “She can handle the ball (against) pressure, she can get us into stuff, she’s really smart, she picks up stuff quickly, so she’ll get us into the offense and be able to direct. She’s really vocal, which is a really good trait to have.”

“She’s a great point guard,” said Arike Ogunbowale, who led ND in scoring last season as a sophomore at 15.9 points per game, “and she’s been around. She’s been to Final Fours, been in real tough situations, tough games, so I’m excited for her to bring her experience here.”

Among Thompson’s tough-game experience, she poured in 24 points as a sophomore in November 2014 when Stanford knocked off No. 1-ranked UConn 88-86 in overtime.

That’s the same contest that broke the Huskies’ 47-game winning streak and immediately preceded their record-setting 111-game victory streak, a run that didn’t end until this past season’s Final Four.

Thompson was named ESPN’s national player of the week after that win over UConn, and added the same distinction during her junior season.

That’s a season in which she averaged 14.7 points, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals and picked up All-Pac-12 honors for the second straight time.

She already had helped Stanford to a Final Four and a 33-4 mark as a freshman starter, to go with Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances over the next two years.

But then Thompson opted to give up her 2016-17 senior season. Both she and coach Tara VanDerveer declined to elaborate at the time, according to reports.

“I needed a break and took my senior year off to get my undergrad degree,” Thompson said Thursday.

College basketball, however, wasn’t out of her system. She attended Stanford games as a fan, and announced last January that she would postpone entry into the WNBA draft to play for Notre Dame.

“I contacted Coach McGraw,” Thompson said. “I wanted to join a team I feel I could contribute to and that had a winning culture, and that’s kind of how it came together.”

She arrived on campus in June for summer classes and is pursuing a master’s degree in business management.

Thompson’s commitment to ND came before forward Brianna Turner suffered a knee injury last March, one that now has the second-team All-American sidelined until next season.

Thompson, though, says she doesn’t regret her choice for her final college season and insists the Irish are still national title contenders.

“Definitely,” Thompson said. “It stinks to lose people, stinks to lose Bri. Hopefully, we’ll have Kat (senior forward Kathryn Westbeld, who is out at least until Nov. 1 due to April ankle surgery) and Jess (Shepard, an All-Big Ten forward at Nebraska seeking immediate eligibility from the NCAA after transferring), but the winning culture is still there. That’s the first thing, and everybody’s working toward that goal of winning a title.”

Thompson even fit right in with these Irish from the aspect of having her own injury issues.

McGraw said Thursday that her new point guard has been “hobbled” by an ankle injury since August, just started going full court this week and is at about 80 percent.

“If there was a game tonight, I’d be ready to go,” Thompson countered. “I tweaked an ankle, but I’m full-go.”

Her eagerness is understandable given that year out of competitive basketball.

Similarly, she has no reservations about how quickly she’ll be able to get back to full throttle despite her layoff from games.

“We’ve been training hard five days a week since June,” Thompson said. “The first week or so, I was sore, tired, getting back into it, but now I think I’m ready, and we’re ready. We’re in shape, we’re strong.

“In terms of being in the arena with the lights on and everyone there, no, I haven’t done that for a while,” Thompson conceded, “but I don’t think there will be any nerves, any issues. I’m usually a pretty calm person, and I think at point guard you have to have that. I don’t think I’ll have any jitters, mostly just excitement to compete with this team.”

Notre Dame graduate transfer Lili Thompson talks with teammates during Media Day for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)