Some good, some bad in Notre Dame women hoops team's latest travels

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Arike Ogunbowale admits she’d rather be home with family.

Coach Muffet McGraw admits she’d rather share holiday dinner time with just her team than seven other teams.

Those are a couple of the bummers accompanying the Notre Dame women’s basketball team as it gets set to play in the Gulf Coast Showcase on Thanksgiving weekend in Estero, Fla., but the Irish also are expressing gratitude toward other trimmings that will come with the trip.

“Thanksgiving’s actually my favorite holiday,” Ogunbowale said Tuesday afternoon prior to practice. “It’s just a good time to be with your family. Last year, we got like 36 hours on our own, and I went home for like 21 of it just to be with family.”

The star junior guard from Milwaukee, Wis., will have no such option this year.

The No. 6-ranked Irish leave for Florida by plane Wednesday morning, practice on Thursday, spend another portion of Thursday at a Thanksgiving dinner with the other teams, and then play three games in three days, Friday through Sunday.

“I am looking forward to being with my team in Florida,” Ogunbowale assured.

“I’d rather we be alone and have kind of an intimate family dinner with our team, but that’s the way it goes,” McGraw said of the eight-squad meal and fan reception planned by tournament organizers.

Over the years, the Irish women have taken a variety of approaches to their Thanksgiving weekend scheduling, from playing single games at home, to hosting tournaments, to being away for single games, to being a part of tourneys on the road.

Most of the players, according to McGraw, have embraced spending Thanksgiving together.

“I think getting home at Christmas is really important to them,” McGraw said. “We try to give them four or five days at Christmas, (but) Thanksgiving is kind of a time to go to a tournament, so if you can go somewhere fun, I think they enjoy it.”

Pointed out McGraw, “A lot of times their parents are able to go, so they get to see three games in a row, so the players do have a lot of family with them. I think a lot of parents will be going on this trip.”

Ogunbowale, the youngest of three siblings, says her mom and dad are indeed heading to Florida.

Junior guard Marina Mabrey, the middle of five siblings, says her mom will make it, but that some of her siblings have games of their own, so there will be no big family get-together.

There won’t be one for senior forward Kathryn Westbeld, either, but she does have an aunt and uncle who live in Florida. They plan to attend the Showcase.

“I definitely love the traveling,” Westbeld said of the many trips she’s made in her career as a member of the Irish. “It’s always been a lot of fun. Two years ago when we were in the Bahamas at Thanksgiving, I was fortunate to have my brother and grandpa come.”

Westbeld, like Mabrey, is the middle of five children. She hails from Kettering, Ohio.

“All four siblings live back in my hometown, so I do miss a lot of stuff,” Westbeld said. “Not being there is definitely sad at times, but I’ve only got one more year away, so I’ve gotta enjoy the travel while I can.”

Westbeld is one of several ND women who come from larger families. At least nine of the players hail from families of at least three children.

Point guard Lili Thompson and junior forward Jessica Shepard each have five siblings to lead the way.

Thompson, a graduate transfer from Stanford, also may have the most travel experience of all Irish players. She grew up in a military family, which involved moving a few times, and while she was at Stanford, she made Thanksgiving tourney stops in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Hawaii.

She also has made one already, as it so happens, to the Gulf Coast Showcase. Two years ago, she helped the Cardinal win the event, beating Purdue 71-65 in overtime in the title game.

“I really like Thanksgiving tournaments,” Thompson said. “I think it’s a good time for bonding. You want to see your family, but with the nature of what we do, we’re gone a lot.”

This year’s Showcase appears more loaded than the one Thompson played in last time. The Irish could face No. 17 South Florida in the semifinals Saturday if they win Friday against East Tennessee State, while the other half-bracket features No. 4 defending national champion South Carolina.

“Wednesday will be a great day to have some fun in Florida,” McGraw said of ND’s one day of relaxation. “It will be nice, but it’s a business trip, so we’ve got to remember that.”

Typically laser-focused, Mabrey is not likely to forget.

“There’s no choice, so it doesn’t matter,” Mabrey said succinctly when asked whether she would prefer to be home over Thanksgiving. “But I like being with my teammates, and part of my family’s going to be down there, so it’s kind of the same thing, and I get to play the game I love.”

Ogunbowale expressed a similar sentiment, although she added that she’s going to miss the “amazing cooking” that goes on in her home.

It’s not clear if the Irish will receive a pass on Thanksgiving from their usual training diets.

“If not,” said Ogunbowale with a smile, “I’ll give myself a pass.”

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 6 Notre Dame (3-0) vs. East Tennessee State (4-1) in Gulf Coast Showcase first round.

WHERE: Germain Arena (8,284), Estero, Fla.

WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m. (follows 2-0 St. John’s vs. 2-2 Western Michigan at 11 a.m., 4-0 South Carolina vs. 4-0 Rutgers at 1:30 p.m., and 4-0 South Florida vs. 1-3 Washington State at 5 p.m.); playbacks and semifinals Saturday; playbacks and championship Sunday.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

Notre Dame guard Lili Thompson (1) dives for a ball that Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Lauren Wolosik (24) picked up during an NCAA exhibition game on Nov. 1. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)