Notre Dame women's basketball aiming for a repeat

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — As much eagerness as there may be on the outside for just skipping ahead to next March and seeing whether Notre Dame can indeed repeat as women’s basketball national champion — maybe even become recognized as the best ND team ever — the Irish themselves sounded prepared Thursday to instead embrace all the work that will be required over the next several months.

Granted, they did party hearty in the offseason — from making a team appearance at the ESPYS, being recognized at both Chicago Cubs and White Sox games, making several local stops with their trophy and even taking a foreign tour to Italy and Croatia that was already planned — but senior forward Jessica Shepard says turning the page toward 2018-19 was never fully out of mind.

“When the tournament was over, we were ready to get back to work,” Shepard said during the team’s annual media day Thursday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion. “We had a couple mandatory weeks off, and we were all begging, ‘Hey, can we get in (the gym), can we get in?’ and it was, ‘No, you guys need to let your bodies rest.’”

“Although we are the national champs, it’s a new season and every team’s been working over the summer to try to get that top spot,” said Arike Ogunbowale, the buzzer-beating hero of both the semifinals and the title game last spring. “We can’t take it for granted.”

“Personally, I think we’re even more motivated than last year,” Shepard said.

If so, that’s a scary prospect for the rest of the women’s college basketball landscape.

Not only were the Irish potent enough last season despite a trio of season-ending injuries along the way to win the program’s second national crown and finish 35-3, but look at the collection of talent they have back for this season.

The top four scorers return in second-team Associated Press All-American Ogunbowale, All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-teamer Shepard, All-ACC first-teamer Marina Mabrey and junior Jackie Young, plus get this, they’ll be joined by former ACC Player of the Year Brianna Turner, who is fully healthy after sitting out all of last season due to a knee injury sustained in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

“I feel like I’m a freshman all over again,” Turner said Thursday of her anticipation for the season, before gleefully adding that her knee brace is “in the trash.”

“Mentally and physically,” said Turner, a two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year, “I’m where I was prior to the injury.”

Of course, “injury” became a nasty word last season, and if there was any damper at all to Thursday’s festivities, it was that coach Muffet McGraw had to use some variation of it again while discussing four players currently battling at least minor setbacks.

Shepard hasn’t practiced with the team yet — the opening workout was Oct. 4 — due to a recent foot injury, while freshmen Katlyn Gilbert (shoulder) and Abby Prohaska (ankle) are likewise sidelined, and returning walk-on Kaitlin Cole is set to have knee surgery Friday.

“I don’t think so,” McGraw said of whether any of the injuries are long term, before adding that in the cases of Shepard and Gilbert “we’ll have to wait for the MRI,” a procedure expected to be imminent for both players.

Shepard insisted Thursday that her injury was of little concern

“We’re just taking our time to make sure everything’s good, being careful,” Shepard said, adding that while she’s not been a full-go in practice, “I’ve been able to get some reps in.”

Center Mikayla Vaughn’s been able to do more than that. She’s full tilt after suffering her season-ending knee injury less than a month into what was a promising freshman season (8.0 points, 4.3 rebounds in 13.2 minutes per game over six appearances).

Vaughn, sophomore Danielle Patterson — whom McGraw calls “maybe our most improved player” — and four highly regarded freshmen in point guard Jordan Nixon, Danielle Cosgrove, Gilbert and Prohaska give the Irish potentially more depth than a season ago.

Departed from last winter’s club are Kathryn Westbeld, Koko Nelson, Lili Thompson and Mychal Johnson, who never played due to her knee injury.

“I think we’re really going to miss Kathryn Westbeld and Koko,” McGraw said of the former starter and first player off the bench, respectively.

“Those are the two that gave us the glue,” the coach said, adding that there are nevertheless candidates among both the returning stars and the prospective subs that can make similar types of contributions.

Asked if the 2018-19 version of the Irish, who are expected to be ranked No. 1 in all the preseason polls, need their own identity separate from the 2017-18 champs, McGraw smiled and said “I’d like to see them get ahead at halftime, get a lead a little better than we did last year,” when the Irish habitually cranked out comeback wins.

“That team definitely had a fighting spirit of coming from behind,” McGraw said. “I’d rather not recreate that. If we could get ahead the whole game, it would be much better.”

Notre Dame opens with a Tuesday, Oct. 30, exhibition at home against Division II Lewis University from Romeoville, Ill., then starts its regular season Friday, Nov. 9, with a 4 p.m. game against visiting Harvard.

Then down the road, as is typically the case for this program, the Irish have a bevy of pre-conference games scheduled against likely ranked teams, then it’s on to trying to win the ACC regular-season title that ND shared last season with Louisville.

“We have a full roster, everyone’s healthy, we have two players back who were hurt last year, so we have a chance to be really great,” Young said. “We just have so many weapons on this team that you really can’t focus your defense one person too much. Now it’s just up to us, really, to come in and work hard every day. That’s what it’s going to take.”

“I see a team that really wants to prove something again,” McGraw said, “and I don’t think I’ll let them get complacent.”

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale talks to reporters during the university’s NCAA college basketball media day, Thursday in South Bend.
Notre Dame,s Katlyn Gilbert, left, and Abby Prohaska pose for a photo during media day for Notre Dame women’s basketball on Thursday in South Bend.