ND women to honor stellar group of seniors

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Capturing the prize that has been the goal for this tour-de-force foursome — the first back-to-back NCAA titles in Notre Dame women’s basketball history — remains to be determined, but even if they don’t add that jewel to their legacies, it’ll still be the most distinct, most prolific and “probably the best senior class we’ve ever had” that is saluted during Senior Day on Sunday at sold-out Purcell Pavilion.

Arike Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey, Brianna Turner and Jessica Shepard will each be honored after the No. 4-ranked Irish (26-3, 13-2) attempt to secure the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament by beating Virginia (11-17, 5-10) in a 12:30 p.m. regular-season finale.

That order of events will itself be a first for a quartet accustomed to firsts.

ND has traditionally recognized its Senior Day honorees before games, but this time, festivities are planned for afterwards.

“It’s impossible to go through everybody in four minutes,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday of the ACC’s maximum allotment for pregame recognitions, “so we’re gonna just walk them out like we normally do, and then after the game, do a little more.”

Why not for a group that’s done a lot more?

“It’s turned into probably the best senior class we’ve ever had, and (we’ve) definitely not had looking at four people being drafted in the WNBA, so it’s kind of unprecedented what they’ve done,” McGraw said, adding that Sunday will be an emotionally “hard” day for her.

“I mean, national champs, and they have such great resumes, all of them,” the coach continued, “ ... but even more than that, personally, what they’ve brought and what they’ve meant to me and to the program.”

The postgame ceremony will be a short, but appreciated, pause for a clicking club that has hammered its last five opponents — three of them ranked — by at least 23 points each.

“We’ll probably host the first two rounds (of the NCAA Tournament),” Ogunbowale said Saturday in her typically practical and forward-looking fashion, “but still, it’s the last regular-season game of our college careers here, so it will definitely be special to have our families here.”

“Tomorrow for sure will be special to look back on my four years in college, and obviously, to look back on my two years here and what a blessing that’s been,” Shepard said. “It will definitely be a special day for us and I think we’re all excited.”

Shepard wasn’t originally part of this Irish class, instead starting her collegiate career with two seasons at home-state Nebraska, but her presence now is part of the distinctness.

She arrived in 2017 with Lili Thompson as the first two transfers McGraw’s ever accepted at Notre Dame. Thompson, as a graduate student, capped her career last season, while this season, Shepard has become the first transfer to play multiple years with the Irish.

The way she’s fused with her fellow stars has appeared virtually seamless.

“Having a prior relationship with pretty much all the seniors really helped a lot in my transition,” Shepard said, “but I also think they trust the coaches, so for the coaches to bring me in, I think everyone just kind of opened their arms. It’s been a very smooth transition.”

Shepard, Turner and Mabrey all played together on a USA Basketball U18 team several years ago. Shepard’s history with Ogunbowale stretches back to facing off in premier Midwest events in middle school.

“They were so welcoming to her,” McGraw said of the the way the other upperclassmen accepted Shepard right away. “They knew her and they really wanted her. They want to be good, so they’re always looking for people to come in that will help them be good.

“Then when you saw how Jess was so unselfish and such a great teammate and so encouraging, the chemistry was like that,” McGraw added while snapping her fingers. “Usually, you would think it would take awhile to get that synergy, but they all came in and I thought just blended really well.”

While Shepard’s Notre Dame career will wind up on the abbreviated side, Turner’s will wind up on the extended side.

Already a two-time All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Turner sat out what originally would’ve been her senior season last year while recovering from a knee injury, but she remained ever-engaged from the sideline during ND’s run to the national title.

Now she’s part of hunting that unprecedented Irish repeat — while she and every one of these seniors also continue assaults on various parts of the program’s record book.

Ogunbowale, an All-American, too, is already Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer at 2,395 points, perhaps overshadowing the fact that Turner (1,852) and Mabrey (1,804) recently climbed into the top 10 themselves.

Mabrey is also poised to finish atop the Irish chart for career 3-pointers, needing eight more to pass Alicia Ratay’s 262.

Turner, depending on how many postseason games ND can win, still has a shot at Ruth Riley’s standard for career blocked shots, owning 341 to trail the Hall of Famer by 29.

Shepard, meanwhile, is long past 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds between her two collegiate stops — she’s at 2,154 and 1,136 — to join Riley as the only two individuals with an ND affiliation to ever achieve that double.

“Statistically, this is an amazing class,” McGraw said. “It’s never gonna be topped.”

Notre Dame’s starting five Jessica Shepard (32), Arike Ogunbowale (24), Jackie Young (5), Brianna Turner (11) and Marina Mabrey (3) take the court for a game against Boston College on Jan. 20. All but Young are seniors and will be honored after Sunday’s game against Virginia.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Virginia (11-17, 5-10 ACC) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (26-3, 13-2).

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

WHEN: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

TICKETS: Sold out.

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

TV/WEB: RSN/ACC Network Extra.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Notre Dame and Louisville enter the final day of the ACC regular season tied atop the standings at 13-2, with each a heavy favorite to win (the Cardinals visit 2-13 Pittsburgh). If they do both win, the Irish will get the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tourney by virtue of beating Louisville head to head. If both teams are upset, Miami (12-3) can still tie for first place by winning at North Carolina State (11-4), and the Hurricanes also would hold seeding tiebreakers over both ND and the Cardinals. ... Virginia (11-17, 5-10) is 0-8 this season against teams with winning ACC records (including narrow losses to ranked clubs Florida State and Syracuse), while Notre Dame hasn’t lost a game to any team that finished with a losing mark, overall or conference, since Marquette in January 2009. … The Cavaliers are in their first season under former Texas assistant Tina Thompson. The first-ever WNBA draft pick in 1997, Thompson retired in 2013 as the league’s all-time leading scorer after winning four titles with Houston to go with a pair of Olympic gold medals. … Juniors Jocelyn Willoughby (14.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and Dominique Toussaint (11.2 ppg, 3.3 apg) are Virginia’s lone scorers averaging in double digits. … Notre Dame leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (21.3 ppg, 4.1 apg, 1.9 spg), Jessica Shepard (16.0 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 59.9 percent on field goals), Marina Mabrey (14.3 ppg, 4.6 apg, 61-of-134 on 3s for 45.5 percent), Jackie Young (14.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 5.0 apg, ACC-leading 2.5 assist/turnover ratio) and Brianna Turner (13.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg, ACC-leading 2.7 bpg, ACC-leading 62.4 percent on field goals). … ND freshman guard Jordan Nixon is expected to miss a fifth straight game due to a hamstring injury. She was back in practice this week, but reinjured the hamstring Friday during a defensive drill, according to coach Muffet McGraw.

QUOTING: “They’ve just all been great teammates, great friends, people you can count on. We’ve had great relationships for four years.” — Arike Ogunbowale, Notre Dame guard, on her fellow seniors who will be honored during Sunday’s Senior Day.