Notre Dame women's basketball adjusting again to shrinking roster

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame players were showing their hardened shells and their soft underbellies all at once as they pressed forward Friday with the knowledge that they’ve lost yet another teammate to yet another season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury.

Coach Muffet McGraw was showing her admitted frustration, saying it’s “so hard to understand how this keeps happening.”

While the coach and the players alike were aching over the knee injury suffered this week by freshman Mikayla Vaughn — on top of similar injuries to All-American forward Brianna Turner and senior guard Mychal Johnson over the last eight months — the players remained insistent that it won’t affect their mindsets as they prepare for Sunday’s women’s college basketball showdown against top-ranked host Connecticut in Hartford.

“I don’t think about it,” star guard Arike Ogunbowale said as she addressed a question about both injury risks and how her team has been altered by another subtraction in active talent. “We have to move on. They were big parts of our team, but we still have games to play, so we have to move on from it.”

“It’s a freak accident, you can’t control it,” junior guard Marina Mabrey said shortly before the 7-0 Irish headed into a film session on the 6-0 Huskies.

“But,” added Mabrey, “it’s always like, when it happens, everyone kind of knows and the gym goes silent, and it’s just kind of hard to see someone, and know their season has ended.”

For Vaughn, a promising freshman center and No. 3-ranked ND’s top scorer off the bench at 8.0 points per game, that end came abruptly Tuesday afternoon at practice on a non-contact play.

The school didn’t announce the injury until Thursday night, but McGraw said if players didn’t know Tuesday about the seriousness just from being there, they probably knew before Wednesday’s game at Michigan after MRI results came back.

Yet, the Irish never outwardly flinched in Ann Arbor, jumping to a 24-13 lead through one quarter and winning 83-63 over the No. 22 Wolverines.

McGraw, however, said that inwardly there has to be some toll felt by those players, and not just the toll pertaining to the fact that the collective talent has been reduced again.

“I think they think, ‘That could be me,’ and know it could be,” McGraw said of the players. “I think it’s harder for the girls that have gone through the injury. They relive it again. I think it’s hard for all of them. They’ve all seen it happen. They all know they could easily switch places.”

The coach says she hopes the players who are playing honor those who aren’t through how hard they play, mindful of the fact that the injured players are longing to be out there.

Turner’s been out since being hurt in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March. She announced in September that she will return next season for her final year of eligibility.

Johnson was sidelined for this season on Oct. 23. She will have a year of eligibility remaining if she exercises it.

Based on the 70 percent or more of this season that Vaughn will not play due to injury, she should have four years of eligibility remaining under NCAA rules.

“We have to keep playing, we have to keep our energy up, focus on executing, but it’s horrible to lose her,” graduate transfer point guard Lili Thompson said of Vaughn, who was leading the team with seven blocked shots. “She’s not only a great freshman, but a great teammate, and we’re devastated for her.”

“It’s sad for anybody to tear their ACL, but she’s in high spirits,” Ogunbowale said. “She’s a good player, and it means we have her for another year, which is amazing for this university, because she’s going to be a great player.”

That doesn’t help McGraw in the present with the riddle nor the slap that ACL injuries have become.

“It’s just staggering, and to have to go through it three times (in eight months) … ” the 31st-year ND coach said of what she called a new high in frequency for her program.

Various medical articles put the occurrence of ACL injuries in women at anywhere from two to 10 times higher than men. Anatomy, biomechanics and hormones are among reasons cited.

Specific exercises are aimed at reducing the likelihood of the ACL tears, but they still happen an estimated 200,000 times a year in the U.S. to athletes and non-athletes alike.

Planting, cutting, landing, sudden stopping, quick changes in direction and contact — each a staple in basketball — are among reasons for the injuries, according to a University of Colorado Hospital report.

For the Irish, their three ACL injuries have left them at eight scholarship players, and one of those players, senior Kathryn Westbeld, is still not at full strength following April ankle surgery. The team also has a pair of walk-ons, forward Maureen Butler and guard Kaitlin Cole, but Westbeld has missed a number of workouts.

“It’s just tough to practice that way,” McGraw said of the assorted obstacles. “Right now we have guy practice players, but over the break we won’t have them, and at times during final-exams week we won’t have them, so it will be difficult to get through practice, but we’ve got to figure out a way to get it done, and we will.”

That’s a resolve that was also echoed Friday by the players.

“Everyone has to be in shape, which I think we are,” Mabrey said of the shrinking roster and more minutes for some of the remaining individuals. “Mainly, it doesn’t affect us. We need to just keep going, keep running over teams, and Mick will be back next year.”

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw listens to a referee during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (7-0) vs. No. 1 Connecticut (6-0).

WHERE: XL Center (16,294), Hartford, Conn.

WHEN: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).