No. 5 Notre Dame may face No. 19 Duke without Kathryn Westbeld

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — As surging Notre Dame tries to take surging Duke out, the Irish may have to do so without Kathryn Westbeld, who looks like she’s been duking it out.

The availability of the senior forward for Sunday’s nationally televised 1 p.m. women’s basketball contest could be a game-time decision, coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday.

While the acute swelling around Westbeld’s purpled right eye has begun to go down after she was poked during the third quarter of Thursday’s 94-62 victory over North Carolina, she was held out of the practice the Irish engaged in Saturday afternoon shortly before departing for Durham, N.C.

“We’re hopeful, but she’s questionable,” McGraw said of Westbeld.

If Westbeld doesn’t play, recently hot Kristina Nelson will get the start, according to the coach, while the scholarship portion of ND’s bench will be chopped in half to a solitary freshman, Danielle Patterson.

Expect zero sympathy for the No. 5-ranked Irish (21-2, 9-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) from the No. 19 Blue Devils (18-5, 7-3).

Just like Notre Dame, Duke’s lost a key player for all of this season because of a knee injury that was suffered in the NCAA Tournament last season. That’s Kyra Lambert for the Devils, Brianna Turner for the Irish.

Likewise similar to ND, Duke’s been slammed again this season. Though the Devils can’t match the three players that the Irish have lost to season-ending knee injuries, they did lose heralded freshman point guard Mikayla Boykin for the rest of the winter in early December.

And just like the Irish with Westbeld, the Devils have a starter who’s questionable for Sunday in Haley Gorecki. The sophomore sharpshooter who is averaging 11.5 points sat out Thursday’s 77-59 win over Georgia Tech with a hip injury and is listed as “day to day” in Duke’s pregame media notes.

It may not matter. Just as ND has done, the Devils have forged forward.

They’ve won seven of their last eight, the loss an overtime decision at rival North Carolina.

Furthermore, for their game with the Irish, they’ll be home, where they’ll be aiming for a program-record 31st straight regular-season victory.

“It’s always hostile because the crowd is always right behind you,” McGraw said of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke is engineered by ACC Player of the Year candidate Lexie Brown. The senior guard leads the ACC in scoring (20.6) and steals (3.7) besides averaging 4.1 assists.

Brown’s part of a trio with Gorecki and senior Rebecca Greenwell who have carried the Devils to 41.6 percent marksmanship from 3-point land, ranking the team third in the nation.

All three are shooting 41.9 percent or better outside the arc. They’ve combined to drain 137-of-318 triples.

“It’s going to be difficult. We might have to play some man-to-man,” said McGraw, whose club has gone almost exclusively with an increasingly effective zone lately. “We’ll have to see how it goes, but we didn’t do a good job on (Florida State’s) Imani Wright, and that was just one (player), so to guard three of ’em as well as they shoot it will be difficult. But we’re getting smarter, we’re getting better, we’re more active.”

“You gotta know where they are in the zone and shade towards that side,” Irish guard Marina Mabrey said of the challenge Duke presents, “while still keeping the high post covered and getting out there with a hand up to contest the shots.”

Mabrey’s coming off her most productive game of the season in the win over Carolina. The junior notched or matched season highs with 25 points, eight assists and five steals. She went 9-of-15 from the field with three triples and 4-of-4 at the line.

As a team, the soaring Irish rang up their fourth straight league victory by 30 or more points, matching a 19-year-old standard, and won their sixth straight game overall.

In their last five, beginning with the second half of the Tennessee contest, they’ve pummeled their opponents 428-252, and that includes a pair of top-10 victims.

Duke’s been nowhere near that overwhelming, but the Devils have won each of their last three by at least a dozen points. They’re looking to make ND their second ranked victim of the season, having downed Oregon State, and they fell just 66-60 earlier this month at No. 3 Louisville — the same place the Irish suffered their 100-67 aberration loss.

With six league outings remaining for each, the Cardinals and ND are tied atop the ACC at 9-1. Virginia’s next at 8-2, followed by Duke and North Carolina State at 7-3.

Super sentiments

Feelings are divided among the Irish regarding Sunday’s Super Bowl, both in terms of who they’ll be backing and in the degree of interest, but count injured freshman Mikayla Vaughn as eager.

She’s a native of Philadelphia and will be supporting her hometown Eagles.

“I’m really excited. It’s been hard rooting for Philly sports these past — how old am I? — 18, 19 years,” Vaughn said with a laugh Saturday. “Hopefully, they’ll beat the Patriots and change everything.”

Vaughn is the daughter of former University of Pennsylvania star quarterback Martin Vaughn.

“I know the basics (of football), but my dad’s a super fan,” Vaughn said. “He has little fantasy football leagues and is super into it. He’s rockin’ (for Sunday’s game).”

Notre Dame’s expected to arrive back from Duke in time to watch most, maybe even all, of the 6:30 p.m. Super Bowl.

“We’re going to order a bunch of wings and veg out for the night,” Vaughn said of some of her teammates and herself. “I’ll probably watch a little with my team, then with some other friends in the dorm.”

Meanwhile, Mabrey, who grew up about 75 miles from Philadelphia in New Jersey, isn’t staying as loyal to roots as Vaughn, but it’s partially because she has an incentive.

“If you guess (the score) right in our class, you get extra credit points,” Mabrey explained.

She’s picking New England to win, 24-17, and rooting for that outcome as well.

In other words, keep her away from Nelson.

“I want the Eagles to win because I hate the Patriots,” a smiling Nelson said succinctly of why she’s cheering for Philadelphia.

A year ago, New England rallied from a 28-3 deficit to defeat Atlanta. Nelson, a native of the Atlanta area, admits that loss is a factor in her hatred.

Others are a less passionate.

“I’ll probably watch it,” Westbeld said earlier in the week, “but I’m not a huge NFL fan, don’t care much who wins, but I definitely love college football.”

McGraw is a native of West Chester, Pa., about an hour from Philly.

“Oh, I’m cheering for the Eagles, but I’m probably not going to watch it,” the coach said.

She may not watch it, but she will hope a trend continues.

Notre Dame is 5-0 under McGraw when playing on Super Bowl Sunday.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 5 Notre Dame (21-2, 9-1 ACC) vs. No. 19 Duke (18-5, 7-3 ACC).

WHERE: Cameron Indoor Stadium (9,314), Durham, N.C.

WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

NOTING: Notre Dame’s beaten Duke 13 straight times, most recently 84-61 in last season’s ACC Tournament final. The Devils’ lone series win came in November 1997. The Irish are 15-1 against Duke overall and 3-1 in Durham. … Notre Dame’s four ACC regular-season and four ACC Tourney titles in four seasons since joining the league come on the immediate heels of Duke winning or sharing the four previous regular-season crowns and taking three of the previous four tourney titles. … Duke leaders include Lexie Brown (20.6 ppg, 4.1 apg, 3.7 steals), Rebecca Greenwell (12.9 ppg), Haley Gorecki (11.5 ppg), Erin Mathias (9.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Leaonna Odom (8.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg).

QUOTING: “I don’t pay any attention to that at all. I don’t have any idea where they put us, and I don’t want to know. … I’m in my bubble. I only care about it on selection Monday.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on the NCAA selection committee’s latest rankings.

Notre Dame forward Kristina Nelson (21) blocks a shot by Florida State guard Imani Wright (32) during a recent ACC matchup at Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/PHIL SEARS)