Depleted Notre Dame women ready for next ACC road challenge

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Who’s next? Ideally, justifiably, absolutely nobody.

After all, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team already has rocketed long past any reasonable quota in terms of quantity and severity to its injuries this season.

And yet, no matter how many a team suffers, it serves as no guarantee against suffering another.

So, while the No. 2-ranked Irish (14-1, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) continue to post results that suggest no fear heading into Sunday’s game at Georgia Tech (12-4, 1-2), how can there genuinely be none given what this group already has witnessed?

One by one, they’ve seen four of their teammates picked off like unsuspecting, grazing sheep. That’s over a third of the individuals who at one time could’ve comprised this season’s active scholarship roster.

“When you see a lot of people go down, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope it doesn’t happen to me,’” junior guard Marina Mabrey acknowledged Saturday morning before practice, “but I wouldn’t say we’re scared.

“We just feel for our teammates, that they can’t be out there with us. But we can’t control that. We just have to keep playing hard and worrying about what we can control.”

Point guard Lili Thompson became the fourth ND player since last March to suffer a season-ending knee injury when she was hurt in last Sunday’s game at Wake Forest.

Thompson joins Brianna Turner, Mychal Johnson and Mikayla Vaughn as sidelined Irish players. Thompson and Turner were hurt in games, Johnson and Vaughn in practice.

“I’ve seen some injuries in my time here, but nothing like this — it’s crazy,” fifth-year senior Kristina Nelson said before Saturday’s workout.

For the record, those four major knee injuries are in addition to Jessica Shepard at least twice suffering ankle sprains, Jackie Young sustaining a broken nose and Kathryn Westbeld initially being restricted by a slow recovery from offseason ankle surgery.

“Personally, I just try not to think about it,” Nelson said. “Continue to go hard, and if it happens, it happens. It means it was in the cards, but I think we do a really good job of picking each other up.

“And the people that are injured, I think they do a really good job of encouraging us, too,” Nelson observed. “Their spirits are never really that down, so that helps us, too.”

As the Irish continue to cope with being down to seven scholarship players, Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw continues to consider adjustments.

She said after Thursday’s 83-76 win over Miami that “we’ll probably take more days off, do more with film and shooting rather than having full practices.”

On Saturday, she indicated that the Irish probably will continue to rely more heavily on zone defense after featuring it in Thursday’s victory.

“That’s my hope,” McGraw said of the zone potentially reducing the likelihood of players getting into foul trouble as well as reducing the amount of chasing that will go on among players expected to play more minutes.

“We were moving more toward (zone) anyway,” McGraw said. “We’ve been looking for something else because we’re not a great man-to-man team. I mean, we’re not a good defensive team at all, so we’ve gotta do something to help us stop people.”

With the zone comes continued teaching.

“I don’t think I’ve spent enough time on it and really explained some of the things we’re trying to do out of it, so I think we can get better out of it,” McGraw said. “I think we have to stay with it even when people make a shot. I think in the beginning of the year, somebody made a 3 and it was like, get out of it, so now we’ve just go to figure out how to guard in it.

“We’ve gotta be smart in it, guard the shooters and not the drivers.”

In Thursday’s win, Mabrey played more than 39 minutes, while Young was credited with 38 and Ogunbowale 37. None of those three guards appeared particularly worn from it.

“Thirty-eight,” McGraw said of how many minutes she believes Mabrey, Young and Ogunbowale can each play consistently. “I’d like to give them a breather at some point, but with quarters and timeouts, I think they can handle it.”

McGraw said she’d like to keep starting forwards Shepard and Westbeld around 30 minutes each, but added that “there’s going to be games they’ll have to go more.”

Lili's blog

Thompson detailed her injury, her emotions over it and other related thoughts when she posted Friday to “Taking The Last Shot,” a series of blog entries she’s writing on her final college basketball season.

Wrote Thompson in part:

“As I left the doctor’s office Tuesday morning, I ran into the athletic trainer for our men’s team. (With so many injuries, unfortunately Notre Dame hasn’t experienced the ‘luck of the Irish’ too much this season.) He said all of the usual things; he was sorry, he wished me a speedy recovery, he told me to keep my spirits high, etc. But what he said right at the end was so blunt and so true it instantly put things in perspective.

“‘It’s not cancer.’

“As someone who has lost beloved family members to the disease, I immediately said, ‘You’re right.’

“It’s not life or death. It really, really stinks. But it’s not life or death.”

Thompson’s full blog can be found at goo.gl/eSnzpA.

Tackling Tech

As Notre Dame looks to stay perfect all-time against Georgia Tech, the Irish will have to do it at a place where the Yellow Jackets have been near-perfect.

Tech is 9-1 at home this season, and the blemish is No. 3-ranked Louisville’s 74-71 escape on Dec. 28.

“They’re always tough at home and have always been a tough team for us over the years,” said McGraw, who has nonetheless led the Irish to an 8-0 record against the Jackets, including 4-0 in Atlanta.

“They’re very physical, they’re very aggressive defensively and they rebound,” McGraw said. “(Francesca) Pan’s shooting the ball well, but (Zaire) O’Neal’s the one that’s always given us trouble.”

For Nelson, a native of nearby Buford, Ga., Sunday’s game will be a fourth homecoming.

“I live about 40 minutes (from McCamish Pavilion) with no traffic, but this weekend, there’s obviously going to be a lot of traffic,” Nelson said with a smile of the congestion expected to accompany the college football playoff championship scheduled for Monday in Atlanta. “It’s going to take my parents and everybody a little longer.”

Nelson has 15 friends and family picking up comp tickets for Sunday’s game, plus others will be buying.

“I’m excited to go home, but it’s a game, so it’s business when we get there,” said Nelson, who has had five points, six rebounds and two blocks in 24 minutes over three previous appearances at Tech.

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (14-1, 3-0 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (12-4, 1-2 ACC).

WHERE: McCamish Pavilion (8,600), Atlanta.

WHEN: Sunday, 2 p.m.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACC Network Extra.

TV: None.

NOTING: Georgia Tech is led by sophomore Francesca Pan, averaging 13.9 points per game. One of three Yellow Jackets from Italy, she’s shooting better from 3-point range (40-of-109 for 36.7 percent) than from 2-point territory (27-of-78 for 34.6 percent). Zaire O’Neil is adding 10.6 points, despite coming off the bench, and fellow senior Elo Edeferioka is at 8.6 points and 6.1 rebounds. Tech’s averaging 5.75 fewer turnovers than its opponents to rank 25th of 345 Division I teams. The Jackets are coached by Indiana native and former Purdue star MaChelle Joseph, who is 286-181 in her 15th season. … Arike Ogunbowale is averaging 20.5 points to lead the Irish.

QUOTING: “Yeah, I can, but if I’m going to play 40, I’m going to be a little winded once in awhile, so it helps that me, Jackie (Young) and Arike (Ogunbowale) can all pick each other up (directing the offense). We’re not all born point guards, so switching and changing makes it easier on all of us, and there’s not so much pressure.”

— Marina Mabrey, Notre Dame guard, on whether she can consistently approach 40 minutes per game.