Eventful offseason ends for Notre Dame women's hoops

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — What’s certain is when the season starts. Less certain has been who starts.

The No. 6-ranked Notre Dame women’s basketball team opens at 1 p.m. Saturday when Mount St. Mary’s visits Purcell Pavilion, ending an eventful offseason that’s been peppered by injury developments and roster reinforcements.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw was leaning at mid-week toward a four-guard starting lineup that includes junior stars Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale, sophomore Jackie Young and graduate transfer Lili Thompson, accompanied by junior forward Jessica Shepard.

But there remain a variety of variables behind whom ND will put on the floor at given points, both in the opener and beyond.

Among them in the short term, Mabrey turned an ankle in practice Tuesday and sat out Wednesday, though McGraw still described her as “probable.”

There’s also the question of how quickly and how much to blend in Shepard, the All-Big Ten transfer from Nebraska whose hardship waiver for immediate eligibility was only granted last week after months of no word from the NCAA.

“We didn’t take advantage of what we have in her,” McGraw said of her team’s preseason preparation. “I didn’t run a lot of stuff that we might not be doing (if Shepard wasn’t eligible), so we’re just trying to tweak what we have in already and how she can be effective in that, and then we’ll add some things as we go along.”

Based on the collective makeup to the healthy portion of their roster, the Irish could have a distinct difference in how they look with their starters and how they look once they tap into their reserves.

ND, after all, is suddenly deeper in the forecourt with Shepard’s presence, and if she, Mabrey, Ogunbowale, Young and Thompson are each starting, that means the likes of uber-promising freshman Mikayla Vaughn and super-seasoned senior Kristina Nelson are among the leading options off a bench that decidedly tilts toward interior play.

“We’ll come in with two posts — play three guards and two posts for long stretches,” McGraw said. “It’s going to be interesting to see. It’s been hard for me to figure out at practice, like, ‘I need to play this group a lot because they’re going to be playing a lot in the game.’ I don’t really know exactly how that’s going to look, but we’ll start the four guards, and from there, probably go a lot of posts.”

The strength on the inside and the team’s overall versatility will get cranked up even further if Kathryn Westbeld eventually comes back healthy.

The senior who started 27 games last season is still recovering from April ankle surgery, but McGraw remains hopeful that Westbeld will be “full go in a couple weeks” and indicated the forward might even play “a couple minutes” Saturday.

Others on the active Irish roster as the season gets set to tip include freshman forward Danielle Patterson, a McDonald’s All-American last spring, sophomore walk-on guard Kaitlin Cole and junior walk-on forward Maureen Butler.

Expected out for the season are All-American forward Brianna Turner as she continues to rehab from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament sustained in NCAA Tournament play last March and senior guard Mychal Johnson, who suffered a torn ACL on Oct. 23.

Cole, in theory at least, becomes the “first guard off the bench,” though ND can be expected to establish a rotation among the durable quartet of Mabrey, Ogunbowale, Young and Thompson that gets each some rest.

“She is,” McGraw said with a laugh of the “first guard” designation placed upon Cole. “I don’t think she planned on that, and I’m not sure we did, either, but she’s going to get some minutes.”

Therefore, added McGraw with a smile of the former Ohio high school second-team all-stater, “it would be great if she could come to practice more. She’s a pre-med major, has labs every day.”

Sullivan homecoming

South Bend’s Daly Sullivan starts her college career in none other than her hometown Saturday.

Part of a six-player freshman class for Mount St. Mary’s of Emmitsburg, Md., Sullivan helped South Bend Saint Joseph to the Class 3A state title last winter.

She attended Notre Dame camps growing up and was looked at by the Irish early in the recruiting process.

“Know her very well,” McGraw said. “She’s a really good 3-point shooter, had a great high school career, she’s smart. I think she’s going to do really well there. I expect she’ll play a lot as a freshman.”

Sullivan averaged 16.8 points while pacing the Indians to a 26-2 record as a senior.

Dan Olson of ESPN and the Collegiate Girls Basketball Report rated Sullivan as the No. 1 player among Northeast Conference recruits and No. 22 among point guards nationally.

More in-state ties

The Mountaineers’ first-year head coach has ties of her own all over Indiana.

Maria Marchesano is a Fort Wayne native, played collegiately at Butler, graduating in 2005, was once both a women’s basketball and softball assistant at Manchester University, and assisted last season at IUPUI before being named at Mount St. Mary’s.

As a head coach from 2011-12 to 2015-16, Marchesano went 27-22 over parts of two seasons at NCAA Division II Urbana (Ohio) University, then 52-35 in three seasons at D-II Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.

She has played both pro basketball and softball in Italy.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Mount St. Mary’s (0-0; 12-18 in 2016-17) vs. No. 6 Notre Dame (0-0; 33-4 in 2016-17).

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

WHEN: Saturday, 1:02 p.m. (Kayla McBride Ring of Honor ceremony at 12:39 p.m.)

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $18.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACC Network Extra/ESPN3.

TV: None.

NOTING: Mount St. Mary’s is coming off a 12-18 mark (10-8 in the Northeast Conference) and is picked to finish eighth in its league this season. Fort Wayne native Maria Marchesano was hired as head coach May 1 after Bryan Whitten’s contract was not renewed. Senior forward Caroline Hummell, one of three returning starters, led the Mountaineers last season at 10.3 points per game and was second in rebounds at 5.2. The Irish have faced Mount St. Mary’s just once, losing 57-44 in the December 1981 Penn Holiday Tournament at Philadelphia.

QUOTING: “My uncle’s left-handed, and I always had this weird thing where I thought left-handers are cool, ‘cause I wasn’t, so my little-kid brain told me if I could be left-handed, then I’d be cool, so I just started learning how to do that, and I’ve been doing it for a little while.” — Notre Dame freshman Mikayla Vaughn on her ambidexterity, which includes shooting her free throws left-handed

Notre Dame’s Jackie Young (5) dribbles down the court during the Indiana University of Pennsylvania-Notre Dame women's exhibition basketball game at Purcell Pavilion on Nov. 1. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)