Notre Dame women open season with lineup questions at the forefront

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — It was Halloween on Tuesday, and the Notre Dame women’s basketball team still did not know what it was going as this season.

It was also, no less, the night before the opener for the Irish, a 7 p.m. home exhibition Wednesday against NCAA Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and still they did not know exactly how they might appear.

Will they be dressing up in 2017-18 as a team that will sport Nebraska junior transfer Jessica Shepard, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, among its forward options to help buffer the loss of All-American Brianna Turner, who is out until next season as she continues to recover from a knee injury?

Or will the NCAA deny Shepard’s long-simmering waiver request for immediate eligibility, forcing the Irish to go with relatively little proven presence in the post?

“I don’t know anything ... wish I did,” the 6-foot-4 Shepard said Tuesday evening after practice of whether the NCAA will waive the traditional transfer rule of having her sit out a season.

A native of Fremont, Neb., Shepard said she made the waiver request for “personal reasons.”

“We were supposed to hear today. We could hear by tomorrow,” ND coach Muffet McGraw said Tuesday of the NCAA’s decision, not that she sounded sure.

After all, back on Sept. 5, McGraw said she was expecting to receive word in “a week or two.” Yet, the Irish were still waiting eight weeks later.

Shepard, meanwhile, says she’s continuing to go through her paces as if she’ll be eligible.

“I just have to come in every day with that same mindset, just come out and play hard because I don’t know if it’s going to be a day from now or a year from now,” said Shepard, who averaged 18.6 points and 9.2 rebounds over her freshman and sophomore seasons with the Cornhuskers.

“No, not at all,” she added of whether it’s been difficult to maintain that mindset in light of the uncertainty, “just because I have areas I want to improve as a player. So every day, I’m working out in those areas and working out with the team, supporting them.”

McGraw, on the other hand, has made an adjustment.

“We’re putting her with the second team,” the coach said, “so she’s still learning everything and she’s practicing, but we don’t have her in the starting rotation, so we can work on who we know we’re gonna have.”

For Wednesday’s exhibition at least, the Irish won’t have senior forward Kathryn Westbeld.

Westbeld, who averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds last season while starting 27 games, continues to recover from April ankle surgery and did not practice Tuesday.

“We’re hoping to have her by the first game,” McGraw said, alluding to ND’s Nov. 11 regular-season opener at home against Mount St. Mary’s. “I think it’s questionable, but that’s what we’re working toward. She’s not going to be full-go, but we’re hoping she’s able to go a couple minutes in the first game.”

Minus Westbeld indefinitely, minus Turner for the season and maybe minus Shepard, the newcomer among those three nonetheless expressed confidence Tuesday concerning her team’s interior possibilities.

“I think we’ll be fine,” Shepard said. “Obviously, Coco (Kristina Nelson) is a fifth-year senior. I think she brings a lot of knowledge and consistency, and Mick (freshman Mikayla Vaughn) is super athletic and shows a lot of spurts where she can be something really special.”

McGraw, too, has spoken glowingly during preseason of Vaughn’s upside, and of Nelson’s “calming presence. … She really knows the offense and knows how to get people the ball.”

ND may also mix in freshman Danielle Patterson, a McDonald’s All-American.

As for the guard position, where senior backup Mychal Johnson is out for the season due to injury, the No. 5-ranked Irish still appear rich with the likes of Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale, Jackie Young and Stanford graduate transfer Lili Thompson.

Yet, given that blend of quality, the coach dropped perhaps a surprise Tuesday.

“I hope that we can take care of the ball,” McGraw said. “Turnovers have plagued us (in preseason practice). That’s been kind of our lacuna.”

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)

WHO: Indiana University of Pennsylvania (24-7 in 2016-17) vs. Notre Dame (33-4 in 2016-17) in exhibition.

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $18.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

TV: None.