Notre Dame women's hoops team looks to transcend injury woes

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — To accompany the reality of a season in which there will be no Brianna Turner, there will be, at least for a while, no Kathryn Westbeld.

On top of all that, there’s still no word from the NCAA on Jessica Shepard and the Nebraska transfer’s bid for immediate eligibility.

And there’s been next to no activity over these first two weeks of practice among the two players expected to eventually settle in as the point guards.

But, are there tempered expectations for the always-contending Notre Dame women’s basketball team in light of all these other developments?

Forget about it.

“You know, I think I can be patient early on,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Thursday, sounding as if she was trying to convince herself more than anybody else, before quickly declaring “I’m not going to be patient with the upperclassmen. They need to be ready to go.

“So, I’ll be patient with the two freshmen.”

Not that one of those two freshmen, 6-foot-3 center Mikayla Vaughn, hasn’t been particularly head-turning these first two weeks anyway.

Which is some relief.

After all, with Turner out for the season as the second-team All-America forward and defensive whiz continues to recover from a knee injury suffered during the NCAA Tournament last March, with former All-Big Ten star Shepard’s status still in limbo, and with fellow forward Westbeld, a returning starter out for at least another three weeks, ND is looking potentially vulnerable inside.

The Irish held their annual media day Thursday, and McGraw said the program still has not received a decision from the NCAA on whether a hardship waiver request on behalf of Shepard will be granted.

If it is, the 6-foot-4 junior will be eligible for the 2017-18 season. If not, Shepard will have to sit out the coming season. Either way, it’s a decision that’s already stretched several weeks beyond the timeline McGraw was initially anticipating.

“It’s hard to plan when you don’t know if she’s gonna play or not,” McGraw said of Shepard. “She’s such a good player. We’d like to have her out there. It’s a little frustrating.”

Same with Westbeld, who with Turner sidelined is ND’s top returning rebounder at 5.3 per game to go with the 8.4 points per contest she averaged last winter.

Westbeld is recovering from April ankle surgery. McGraw is targeting the senior’s return for around Nov. 1, the same date that the Irish host Indiana University of Pennsylvania in an exhibition game. The regular season tips Nov. 11 with a visit from Mount St. Mary’s.

As for those aforementioned point guards, graduate transfer Lili Thompson, an All-Pac 12 performer at Stanford, has been hobbled by an ankle injury since August and is at about 80 percent for the moment, according to the coach. Senior Mychal Johnson has received clearance, after April shoulder surgery, to begin practicing Friday.

Meanwhile, for all the injury woe, there still remains a lot of wow for the Irish as they come off a 33-4 season that featured their fourth straight Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles.

ACC All-Tournament performers Arike Ogunbowale (15.9 ppg) and Marina Mabrey (14.6) averaged a combined 30.5 points per game a year ago as sophomores, while Jackie Young, the leading scorer in Indiana high school history, chipped in 7.3 per game during a freshman season in which she battled multiple injuries.

“Arike, Marina, Jackie, those guards are as good as anybody in the country, so we definitely have talent,” McGraw said.

And experience. While Westbeld and Johnson are each in their fourth years with the program, 6-4 forward Kristina Nelson is her fifth.

A possible expanded role awaits Nelson, who has appeared in 97 games, but has never started one. She averaged 3.5 points and 2.9 rebounds in 11.4 minutes per outing last season.

“Coco’s been here five years, and I think she can be a great post,” Ogunbowale said Thursday of her teammate.

“Having (inside players missing) I think it’s a chance for people to step up their game. Coco can show that, and we have a good freshman in Mick (Vaughn). She’s an amazing post and knows how to run the floor, so I’m excited to see what both of them can do.”

McGraw noted that Vaughn has “shown some really great signs of being able to contribute right away,” and added of Nelson, “when she’s on the floor, you feel that calming presence she has. She’s a good passer in the high post and really knows the offense.”

It’s an offense, according to McGraw, that’s likely to average more than the 14.8 attempts per game that ND took outside the arc last season. The Irish drained 39.5 percent of those 3-pointers as a team, including Ogunbowale at 45.4 percent clip on 64-of-141 and Mabrey at 38.3 on 75-of-196.

On the defensive side, the Irish could look decidedly different without Turner, who averaged 2.5 blocks last season and altered plenty more attempts than that.

“Not having a shot-blocker is a huge blow to the defense,” McGraw said, “so we’re going to have to take more charges, have to work in maybe some double teams, make sure our rotations are perfect, maybe play more zone. There’s a lot of different things we’ll have to try without Bri.”

Notre Dame players (from left) Mychal Johnson, Jackie Young, Marina Mabrey, Kristina Nelson and Jessica Shepard laugh at a video on a cell phone during Media Day for the Notre Dame Women’s Basketball team on Thursday. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)