Surging Notre Dame women's hoops team trying not to peek ahead

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

When it comes to Atlantic Coast Conference titles, Koko Nelson has already stacked up eight, while Notre Dame teammate Jessica Shepard is still seeking her first.

The No. 5-ranked Irish (24-2, 12-1) — tied atop the ACC women’s basketball standings with No. 4 Louisville — resume a heated chase for their latest league crown when they visit Boston College (7-19, 2-11) on Sunday.

Both Notre Dame and the Cardinals have three league games remaining.

Nelson, in her fifth year at ND, has been around for all four of the team’s ACC regular-season titles and all four of its ACC Tournament titles since arriving on campus at the same time the program joined the league.

“That is amazing,” Shepard said following Saturday afternoon's practice as the Irish prepared to fly to the Boston area.

“Koko, and even Bri (Turner, the senior All-American who’s not playing this season due to her ACL injury), you can tell it’s important to them,” Shepard said of defending the team’s titles. “That’s why we have to come out every game and take care of what we can take care of.”

Shepard, a junior transfer from Nebraska, never came close to a collegiate conference crown before this season. Both Cornhusker teams she starred on finished .500 or below in league play during the regular season and each lost its Big Ten Tourney opener.

“Every game matters,” Shepard said of her situation now. “There’s not a single game we can take for granted. The ACC’s a great conference, and I think we get everybody’s best shot every time, so it’s just been about focusing on every game like it’s the most important game of the season.”

“We really try as much as possible to not look ahead,” Nelson echoed. “We are excited for the ACC Tournament, but we’re trying to focus on these last three games so we can close out our goal of regular-season champs.”

A graduate student who redshirted during her second year at ND, Nelson says she’s not remotely tired of collecting ACC hardware.

“It’s a lot of fun, and I know it’s not anything that’s been given to us,” Nelson said of the value the titles carry. “We’ve had to work really hard for the ones we’ve won so far, and some people aren’t as lucky as we are.”

While the Irish captured each of their first four regular-season crowns in the ACC outright, they may have to share this one after losing at Louisville in January.

“It’s still an ACC title,” Nelson said about the possibility of tying, “and we know when we get to the ACC Tournament, we've got another chance to take care of business.”

Shepard, too, is willing to accept a slice for now.

“The conference is full of a lot of great teams,” Shepard said of a league that boasts an unparalleled three of the top six clubs in the NCAA’s RPI rankings and is likewise the only one with five in the top 20. “It’s been shown a lot this year that you don’t know who’s going to beat who, so, yeah, (sharing) would still be a big deal.”

First, though, ND has to keep winning.

Beyond the Eagles in Sunday’s regular-season road finale, the Irish host Virginia Tech (16-10, 5-8) Thursday, then close Sunday, Feb. 25, against No. 25 North Carolina State (20-6, 9-4), which has won eight of its last nine.

Remaining league games for Louisville (26-2, 12-1) are at North Carolina (14-12, 4-9), then home to Virginia (16-10, 9-4) and Pittsburgh (10-16, 2-11).

“It’s a challenge,” ND coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday of players not looking ahead, especially when the next opponent is one the Irish already clocked, 89-60, five weeks ago.

“But in the past, the seniors have just really kept the focus,” McGraw said, “and I think the upperclassmen on this team also understand the importance of every game. It’s really their job to get the team to be mentally ready. When they come out (Sunday), they’re going to set the tone right off the bat, so them coming out ready is what I’m looking to see.”


Graduate student Lili Thompson’s Notre Dame playing career is definitely over, McGraw said, while three other Irish players recovering from torn anterior cruciate ligaments are each making encouraging progress toward potential returns next season.

On Dec. 31, Thompson became the fourth individual on the team in less than 10 months to suffer an ACL injury.

She indicated in January that she was at least considering petitioning the NCAA for an extra season of playing eligibility based on the injury occurring in her final planned year.

“That’s not gonna happen,” McGraw said of Thompson returning. “She’s just played too many games.”

Thompson engaged in three full seasons at Stanford before sitting out last year and joining Notre Dame this season. She appeared in ND’s first 14 games, averaging 5.9 points and a team-leading 4.6 assists in 27 minutes per outing.

Turner was injured last March during the NCAA Tournament. She’s expected back for a final season next winter after sitting out all of this season.

Senior guard Mychal Johnson was injured in late October, shortly before the season, and freshman center Mikayla Vaughn was sidelined in late November after playing six games.

Vaughn maintains four years of eligibility based on how early into the season her injury occurred.

Johnson has a year of eligibility left, but is “weighing her options and hasn’t made a decision yet,” on whether to return, according to McGraw.

“Mychal’s doing really well, is way ahead of schedule,” McGraw said of Johnson’s rehab. “I don’t know where Mikayla is in terms of scheduling, but she’s doing really well, too. Both are doing great.”

McGraw said that Turner recently received her brace and is “allowed to do a little more.”

“She hasn’t been allowed to practice,” McGraw said, “and I don’t know if she will be (before the season’s over), but she can do a little more individually.”


WHO: No. 5 Notre Dame (24-2, 12-1 ACC) vs. Boston College (7-19, 2-11 ACC).

WHERE: Conte Forum (8,606), Chestnut Hill, Mass.

WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACC Network.

NOTING: ND led visiting Boston College 72-33 through three quarters on the way to an 89-60 win on Jan. 14. That outing immediately followed ND's 100-67 loss at Louisville and started the club's current, mostly dominant nine-game winning streak. … Senior Kathryn Westbeld enters Sunday’s game needing 11 points for 1,000 in her ND career. … Westbeld’s 62.8 field goal percentage in ACC play tops the league. Among other ND players, Arike Ogunbowale leads the league in all-games scoring at 20.3 and Marina Mabrey is second in league games in steals (2.9) and third in assists (5.0). … The Eagles’ top five scorers include two freshmen and three sophomores, paced by three-time ACC Rookie of the Week Milan Bolden-Morris at 12.9 points per game. … BC’s the one team that ND has been scheduled to face twice every season since joining the ACC. The Irish are 9-0 in ACC play against the Eagles and have won 11 straight meetings overall.

Notre Dame's Kristina Nelson, left, looks for a shot against Georgia Tech's Kaylan Pugh (1) during an 85-69 Irish victory, Feb. 11 at Purcell Pavilion.(Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)