Notre Dame women's hoops team won't let banner unveiling alter focus on job ahead

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — When Notre Dame women’s basketball unveils its 2018 national title banner before Monday night’s game at Purcell Pavilion, 17 years will have passed since the last time the program owned an opportunity of this kind.

Yet, the Irish insist they don’t plan to bask in the ceremony long.

They’re too busy trying to arrange repeat festivities for next year.

“We kind of made our mark on history here at Notre Dame, which it’s a great university, so just to have that and say we’ve done that forever is pretty cool,” senior forward Jessica Shepard said over the weekend of what the banner will mean to her in the long term, “but we’ve definitely put that behind us and focused on this year.”

After all, for Shepard and fellow final-year stars Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale and Brianna Turner, 2018-19 represents the last chance to add to the title haul.

“We’re just trying to get as many as we can,” said Mabrey, who has been deemed questionable for Monday’s contest against Penn as she recovers from a left quadriceps injury.

“It’s going to be cool to see it up there,” Ogunbowale said of the banner, “but we’ve got to move on from it and try to get another one.”

For coach Muffet McGraw, presumably there will be more chances beyond this season to add to her ND title count, but just like the players, she is taking a business-at-hand approach.

“I think it’s going to put the exclamation point on (last) season,” McGraw said of the ceremony, “and then we’ve got to focus on what’s happening now. That was the past and we’ve got to move on.”

Move on, yet still embrace the moment.

“It will be a good experience, especially in front of our fans who supported us throughout the entire season with our ups and downs,” said Turner, who sat out all of 2017-18 after suffering a major knee injury the previous March.

“I think it’s going to be really exciting,” Turner added. “Definitely, it will always be a lasting memory for us.”

With Notre Dame’s only other NCAA Division I women’s crown coming in 2001, the Irish shattered the record for years between titles — previously held by Baylor at seven — when they became just the seventh program to capture more than one.

“I still look up there,” McGraw conceded of the 2001 banner after Friday’s season- opening win over Harvard. “It will be nice to see two.”

The coach has mentioned in the past that the 2001 banner sometimes looks lonely. Now it will have a fitting friend.

“Emotions of joy, just almost reliving the moment,” Mabrey said of what she expects to feel during the unveiling. “I can’t wait to see that banner, another one hung up. I think it’ll just bring back great memories.”

High-octane start

Even with its starting point guard in Mabrey sidelined due to injury, Notre Dame turned in a daunting debut offensively during the 103-58 win over Harvard.

Besides largely having their way in the half-court, the No. 1-ranked Irish raced to 19 fast-break points, matching the high for any game by last season’s national champs. They also scored 36 points in the third period, ND’s most potent quarter since tallying 38 in December 2016 against Valparaiso.

The Irish, showing a steady willingness to make the extra pass, hit 37-of-67 field goals for 55 percent and finished with 24 assists, including five each by Ogunbowale and Jackie Young.

“I think we’re a really unselfish team,” McGraw said. “You saw Arike get 11 assists in the exhibition game (a 107-65 win over Lewis on Oct. 30), and she would have had a few more (against Harvard), but we missed some shots or got fouled.

“I like the way they’re looking for each other and playing well together. I like the transition, because we’re trying to push the ball. We had people up and down the floor, and the pass wasn’t exactly right (every time, helping lead to 16 turnovers), but we can work on that and the decision-making was good.”

In Penn (1-0), ND will encounter a team that traditionally likes to slow the tempo under coach Mike McLaughlin.

Last season, the Irish had to grind their way to a 66-54 early-December victory when the teams met in Philadelphia. It wound up Notre Dame’s second-lowest point output of the season — trailing only the 61-58 title-game win over Mississippi State.

While ND (35-3) ranked third in the nation in offense at 85.1 points an outing, the Quakers (22-9) closed ninth in defense at 54.9.

Mikayla’s mark

Turner, who had 11 points and 11 rebounds, wasn’t the only Irish post player against Harvard to play her first regular-season game since suffering a season-ending knee injury — nor the only one to shine in her return.

Sophomore Mikayla Vaughn came off the bench to notch career highs of 12 points and four blocked shots along with six rebounds in 22 minutes. The 6-foot-3 center from Philly hit 6-of-7 tries from the field.

Vaughn unleashed a promising start to her college career last season when she averaged 8.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 13.2 minutes while converting 62 percent from the field over ND’s first six games.

She then suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament during a Nov. 28 practice, which came just 11 days before the Irish were scheduled to play in her hometown against the Quakers.

While Monday’s game won’t be a return to Philadelphia, it will be a chance to perform against her dad’s alma mater.

Martin Vaughn was a star quarterback at Penn, setting several school records and captaining a 6-2-1 football team in his 1974 senior season.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Penn (1-0) vs. No. 1 Notre Dame (1-0).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Monday, 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACCN Extra.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Penn opened on Saturday with a 58-51 win at Siena. Junior guard Phoebe Sterba led the Quakers with 16 points, while 6-4 sophomore center Eleah Paker, the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year, added 12 points and three blocks. Parker, one of two returning starters for Penn, averaged 11.5 points and 7.9 rebounds last season. … In ND’s season-opening 103-58 win over Harvard on Friday, Arike Ogunbowale scored 30 points and Jessica Shepard 28, giving the pair the best opening-weekend output by any duo in the country at 58. … The Irish are 4-0 all-time against Penn, including last December’s 66-54 victory. Monday will mark the first time the programs meet in consecutive seasons.

QUOTING: “I think we can dominate more and turn the ball over less. So offensively, I think we can play better, and defensively, I know we can play better.” — Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw after the win over Harvard.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) moves the ball down court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Harvard, Friday.
Notre Dame’s Mikayla Vaughn (30) looks for a shot next to teammate Brianna Turner (11) and Harvard’s Rachel Levy (12) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday in South Bend.