Notre Dame's Turner celebrates "super-senior year''

Anthony Anderson | Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

By virtue of this being her fifth year at Notre Dame, Brianna Turner kiddingly refers to it as her “super-senior year.”

By virtue of her play, the rest of us can refer to it as her superb senior year.

Turner’s highly decorated women’s basketball career that a year ago was on hold is roaring toward the finish line as the top-seeded Irish (30-3) get set to open NCAA Tournament play by hosting No. 16 seed Bethune-Cookman (21-10) on Saturday.

Typically not inclined to get sentimental about her comeback from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that cost her all of last season, the ND forward says she’s driven more by time left than time lost.

“I think my motivation is just knowing I can’t come back any more,” Turner said this week. “There’s no sixth year for me, so I want to end my senior year — my super-senior year — on a really good note.”

Turner appears to be doing everything in her power to make it happen.

“She’s playing the best basketball of her career,” coach Muffet McGraw said, pointing out that Turner’s cracked 20 points in five of the last six games. “Defensively, she’s just been a star, being (Atlantic Coast Conference) defensive player of the year, up for national defensive player of the year. She adds so much to our team, and I’m just so excited for her to begin this final run in the NCAA Tournament.”

Turner was present for last season’s run that netted a national title, but that was from the sideline as she continued to rehabilitate after her March 2017 knee injury.

“I’m really excited for her to actually be playing this time,” senior teammate Marina Mabrey said. “It means a lot to have her back to help us reach our goal, and I’m sure she’s super excited for it.”

Besides continuing to play the kind of defense that has earned her three ACC Defensive Player of the Year nods over her career, Turner has cranked up her offensive game.

Over her last eight outings, she’s averaging 19.3 points and her field goal marksmanship of 77.1 percent (64-of-83) is something most players would accept at the free throw line.

“I don’t know,” Turner said of whether she agrees with her coach that she’s playing her best basketball ever. “I do know I feel really good playing right now. I guess it’s good it’s coming now. I’m real excited with how I’ve been doing lately.”

What she’s done lately has helped her approach several major milestones.

At 990 rebounds, Turner needs just 18 more to pass Ruth Riley for No. 1 in Irish history.

She’s also 69 points short of becoming just the sixth Notre Dame player ever to score 2,000.

A 62.6 percent field goal shooter for her career, Turner would even surpass Riley’s standard (63.2) in that category if the Irish manage six more games and she matches her blistering numbers over the last six.

With an extended postseason, Riley’s record of 370 blocks is within reach, too. Turner has 350.

Overall this season, Turner is averaging 14.4 points and 7.5 rebounds.

She’s also at 64.1 percent from the field and 2.6 blocks per game. Those figures lead the ACC, the nation’s top-ranked conference, and stand fifth and 12th in the country.

Turner’s done her damage seemingly with a carefree attitude, in contrast to the player who was stoic, at least publicly, when it came to discussing her injury last winter. She’s in rhythm with a club that heartily embraces good times.

“I’ve kind of put my injuries in the past,” Turner said with a shrug. “I’m moving forward.”

“She’s pretty loose, yeah,” McGraw said of how relaxed Turner has become, “(but) I think we’re a pretty loose team. You know, probably Mike (Brey, ND’s often laid-back men’s coach) should be coaching this team. They’re all very loose, and I’m the one that’s very tense.”

Bored no more

McGraw agreed this week with the assessment that at times during the regular season her team may have become bored.

“I think what happened was we were waiting for the tournament the whole year,” the coach said.

“I think the season was long. We couldn’t see the end in sight, we lost our focus (and) we came out and played poorly in the two road games that we lost.”

The first of those was a 78-73 decision at North Carolina with Jackie Young out of the lineup due to an ankle injury. The second was a 72-65 defeat on Feb. 7 at No. 19 Miami.

“I think at that point, we’re like, ‘Hey we’ve only got five games left,’ (actually six before the ACC Tournament) so the end was in sight,” McGraw said. “I think they went, ‘Well, we better start playing now.’ Unfortunately, it took us that extra loss to get to this point.”

After winning nine straight games now — all by at least 18 points, with five of them against ranked opponents — the Irish are confident they’ll remain fully immersed the rest of the way, even as a heavy favorite for at least the first of what they hope are six NCAA Tourney outings.

“The tournament is all about being able to focus on who’s in front of you,” Mabrey said, “so we’re focusing on that.”

“Two really tough games at home before we even think about getting (to Chicago),” McGraw said of the fan excitement regarding ND’s potential destination for the middle rounds. “We’ve really got to be able to focus, because this team does not want to look ahead to Chicago. We gotta take care of business here.”

If the Irish win their 11 a.m. matchup against Bethune-Cookman, they’ll also be home for Monday’s second round against the survivor of No. 8 seed Central Michigan (25-7) vs. No. 9 seed Michigan State (20-11).

The Chippewas and Spartans tip at around 1 p.m. Saturday from Purcell Pavilion.

The time for Monday’s game will be announced after the first round.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) defends Connecticut’s Megan Walker (3) during the Notre Dame vs. Connecticut NCAA women's basketball game Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw says her team may be playing loose, but you can’t say that about her coaching style.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Bethune-Cookman (21-10) vs. Notre Dame (30-3) and Central Michigan (25-7) vs. Michigan State (20-11) in NCAA Tournament first round.

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

WHEN: Saturday, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $10 to $15 for Saturday only (including Central Michigan vs. Michigan State in second game); $18 to $30 for first two rounds (second round Monday).

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM)