Injured Notre Dame C Mikayla Vaughn returns home to Philadelphia as a fan

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Mikayla Vaughn can spin a serious injury the way Curly Neal could spin a ball.

An upbeat Vaughn, in harmony with how others have said she’s handling her season-ending setback, even refuses to call her return to her hometown this weekend bittersweet.

“No, I think it’s still very sweet,” the Notre Dame freshman said Friday as the No. 3 Irish (8-1) prepared to take off for Saturday’s game against Penn (2-3) in Philadelphia. “I’m still excited to see my friends and family and cheer on my team.”

ND’s top scorer off the bench at the time, Vaughn became the third Irish women’s basketball player in eight months to be sidelined for the 2017-18 season by a torn anterior cruciate ligament when the 6-foot-3 center suddenly crumpled while practicing defensive slides on Nov. 28.

“Nothing I’ve ever had before felt like this,” said Vaughn, who experienced no knee issues at all in high school. “But I know other people who have torn ACLs, and they’ve said you immediately know. I kind of knew.”

Since then, she has declined to feel sorry for herself.

“I think that’s part of the game I signed up for,” Vaughn said. “It comes along with it. I’m not sad about it. It’s another chance for me to get stronger with my body and make sure I’m ready for the next four years.”

“It’s hard,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Friday of knowing Vaughn won’t be able to play in Philly, “because you set up some of these trips just for (particular players to play at or near home). “It’s disappointing that all her friends, family, teammates, coaches, all the people that were coming, aren’t going to get to see her in the uniform.

“But she’s handling it so well,” McGraw added. “I’m just really proud of her.”

Vaughn was averaging 8.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and shooting 62 percent from the field in just 13.2 minutes over ND’s first six games.

She joins All-American forward Brianna Turner, injured in the NCAA Tournament last March, and senior guard Mychal Johnson, sidelined during practice on Oct. 23, as Irish players out due to ACL tears.

“There’s a bit of a difference in all three of our injuries, but they’re all to our left legs — lucky lefties, I guess,” Vaughn said, tossing a pinch of humor at a difficult situation. “But it’s really been helpful for me to ask them what I can expect with surgery and recovery. I’ve kind of looked to them just to know what to expect.”

By virtue of not playing in Saturday’s game, Vaughn won’t get to go against her father’s alma mater.

Martin Vaughn was a two-time All-Ivy League second-team quarterback for Penn football in 1973 and ‘74. He set several Quaker records, including single-season passing yardage, career passing yardage, single-season touchdown passes and career TD passes. He was team captain as a senior in ‘74, when Penn went 6-2-1, the program’s best mark from 1969 to ‘83.

“He obviously loves it there, so any time he gets to go back, it’s a treat for him,” Mikayla Vaughn said. “So it’ll still be fun for him.”

The younger Vaughn acknowledges that she was looking forward herself to the treat of playing in the famed Palestra, the nearly 91-year-old facility on the Penn campus that has been called the “Cathedral of College Basketball.”

The Palestra is the oldest major college arena still in use and has hosted more games, more visiting teams and more NCAA tournaments than any other facility, according to VisitPhilly.com.

“I used to visit on school field trips, but I have not played there,” Vaughn said. “Hopefully, (we will) sometime in the future. Maybe in the next four years, we’ll get another game there.”

And if not, Vaughn will likely still find a positive way to spin that. 

Muffet's back, too

McGraw, conversely, has played at The Palestra, doing so annually as Muffet O’Brien on the first four Saint Joseph’s University varsity teams from 1973-74 to ‘76-77.

The Hawks went 4-0 in those intra-city contests against Penn, winning the inaugural matchup 47-42 and each of the others by at least 33 points.

“It’s a great venue, just an iconic building,” McGraw said. “So many great players and so much college history, and Kobe Bryant played there in high school.”

McGraw, a native of Pottsville, Pa., is commemorated on a Palestra concourse as a 1990 Big 5 Hall of Fame inductee. The Big 5 refers to Penn, Saint Joseph’s and fellow Philadelphia area Division I schools La Salle, Temple and Villanova.

As a coach, this will be McGraw’s first visit to The Palestra since ND’s 76-54 win over the Quakers on Nov. 23, 2013, and her first game in Philly since a 91-55 victory over her alma mater on Dec. 21, 2015.

Layoffs loom

Following Saturday’s game, the Irish don’t play again until DePaul visits on Sunday, Dec. 17, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be busy.

Final exams are scheduled for all of next week.

“It is and it isn’t (a layoff),” McGraw said of the players. “They’re going to be up all night studying, so it’s not really a break for them.”

For the coaches, “it’s our chance to get out to see some high school kids,” the coach added.

The next practice is scheduled for Thursday.

“They can come in and shoot and lift if they want (before then),” McGraw said, “but everything’s optional.”

After DePaul and a Wednesday, Dec. 20, matinee visit by Marquette, ND will have yet another week-long window in front of its next game, the Atlantic Coast Conference opener Thursday, Dec. 28, at home against Syracuse.

During that window, players will receive some time off for the holidays.

Westbeld update

Kathryn Westbeld is “still playing through some pain,” according to McGraw, but the restrictions on the senior forward’s minutes and practice schedule continue to lessen.

“We haven’t been given the full release,” McGraw said of Westbeld, who underwent ankle surgery in April, “but I think she’s pretty much full-go.”

Westbeld, who practiced Friday, played a season-high 30 minutes in last Sunday’s loss against No. 1 Connecticut, then played 26 in Wednesday’s win over Michigan State.

Starting both games, she scored 10 points, grabbed seven rebounds, dealt seven assists and committed no turnovers while going 4-of-5 from the field and 2-of-2 at the line.

Notre Dame freshman forward Mikayla Vaughn (30) will miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn ACL in practice on Tuesday. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (8-1) vs. Penn (2-3).

WHERE: The Palestra (8,722), Philadelphia.

WHEN: Saturday, 1 p.m.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

TV: Ivy League Network.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Penn (2-3) will be playing just its second home contest of the season, having won that one and its last eight last season at The Palestra. Led by reigning Ivy League player of the year Michelle Nwokedi, the Quakers return three starters from their 2016-17 club that captured the Ivy by four games at 13-1, added the league’s tournament title and finished 22-8 overall. Nwokedi, a 6-3 senior, is averaging 13.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. Senior guard Anna Ross is next at 9.8 points to go with 4.6 assists. … Irish leaders include Arike Ogunbowale (20.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Jackie Young (15.6, 8.0), Jessica Shepard (13.3, 8.0), Marina Mabrey (10.3 ppg) and Lili Thompson (6.8 ppg, 4.8 apg). … ND is 3-0 all-time against Penn, the most recent meeting a 76-54 win in November 2013 at The Palestra.

QUOTING: “They have a tough inside presence, some really tough matchups, plus they’re good 3-point shooters, and they play really well at home. They’re a team you really have to be focused for. … We need to push the ball. They’re (trying to keep teams) in the 60s and we want to score in the 80s.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on Penn.