Does Bethune-Cookman mirror 2018 Irish on a smaller scale?
SOUTH BEND — Bethune-Cookman University’s already endured enough this season, and on a smaller scale achieved enough, to remind some of Notre Dame last season.
But that doesn’t mean Vanessa Blair-Lewis isn’t going to keep it real about how different those scales remain.
“Notre Dame has about eight McDonald’s All-Americans, and we have about eight kids that like to eat at McDonald’s,” the BCU coach said Friday, “so we do have something in common.”
Summarized Blair-Lewis of the challenge facing her No. 16-seeded club against the top-seeded Irish in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament first-round women’s basketball game at Purcell Pavilion, “I think they wrote the story in the Bible of David and Goliath for a reason.”
Consider that defending national champion Notre Dame has crafted its 30-3 record against the nation’s premier schedule, including an 11-2 mark against clubs ranked within the final Associated Press Top 25.
The Wildcats’ record of 21-10 pales in comparison, and those 10 losses have been racked up without facing anybody from that final Top 25.
Still, BCU’s achievements fall squarely under the heading of compelling.
The Cats’ first-ever NCAA Tourney qualification — earned by winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament — comes in the program’s 37th year in Division I, and it comes ironically in a season peppered by injuries, in a season that included a third-place MEAC regular-season finish, and on the heels of three straight seasons in which they won MEAC regular-season titles, yet couldn’t add the league tourney crown.
“We are beyond elation,” Blair-Lewis said about the Daytona Beach, Fla., school finally reaching the Big Dance. “Our girls have been hampered all season with injuries beyond our control, so it has really been unbelievable for us to even have taken this step.”
“They went through what we went through last year,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Friday of the Wildcats. “They’ve had a ton of ACL injuries. They’ve had to kind of regroup as late as February, change some things up, but still managed to come out and win the conference, so a lot of respect for what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished.”
Last season, the Irish had two players sidelined wire to wire and two more for all of the final three months due to torn anterior cruciate ligaments.
This season, BCU has seen five of its players knocked out by knee injuries.
That group includes Kiana Williams, a freshman who was the Wildcats’ No. 2 scorer at 12.2 points per game and was a “shoe-in” for MEAC Rookie of the Year, per Blair-Lewis, when she was sidelined for good after 12 games; senior Ashanti Hunt, the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year last season who played just the first two games; and junior Briana Hardee, a projected starter who got into just three games.
“I think it brought us closer,” star guard Angel Golden said of how BCU was able to up its game minus some of its major components. “We just had to lift each other up.”
Statistically at least, Golden has done the heavy lifting.
The 5-foot-8 senior from Tampa, Fla. — home of this year’s Final Four — is averaging 19.7 points, including 22.0 over the Cats’ last dozen games.
Senior forward Chasimmie Brown is next at 8.6 points to go with a team-leading 8.6 rebounds.
“Being that we knew what was taken from us during the season, we knew we had to step up and play our roles plus more,” Brown said. “We didn’t let (the injuries) get us down too much.”
After standing 9-8 through 17 games, the Wildcats are 12-2 over their last 14, and they’re 10-1 with the lineup they expect to start Saturday.
“We know we have a daunting task ahead of us,” Blair-Lewis said, “but we’ve been the underdogs all year.”
While it may be nothing like what BCU is dealing with, nor anything like what Notre Dame maneuvered last year, the Irish have abruptly been hit with new setbacks of their own just as the NCAA Tourney approaches.
Freshman Abby Prohaska, leading the team in minutes off the bench, turned an ankle Thursday in practice and will be “a game-time decision” on Saturday according to McGraw.
Further, star forward Jessica Shepard came down with strep throat during the nearly full week the Irish received off March 11-16 after winning the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, and just returned to practice Thursday.
“So we never really had our starters together,” McGraw said of a 10-day stretch that was capped Wednesday.
“I’m rethinking my decision to give them so much time off, but I always worry this time of the year,” McGraw said. “I think the break was good for them. They’re definitely fresher and ready to go, but I hope we haven’t lost the chemistry that we had in the ACC Tournament.”
On the plus side of the health equation, freshman point guard Jordan Nixon returned to practice this week.
Nixon missed the final five regular-season games due to a hamstring injury, then played sparingly in the ACC Tourney without the benefit of practice time.
“It’s been good to have her at practice this week so she can kind of get the cobwebs out, try to get back in stride,” McGraw said. “It takes awhile, but she will be available.”
Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner, as hot as any Irish player and seemingly as playful as any, kept it up during Friday’s media event.
About five minutes before she and fellow senior star Arike Ogunbowale were scheduled to appear for a news conference, she peaked her head around a curtain and smiled.
“Nice questions only,” Turner told those assembled. “If you wouldn’t ask your grandma, don’t ask us.”
After the news conference, Turner was chased down by one reporter and asked, “Grams, will you bake me some cookies?”
Turner laughed heartily.
Ogunbowale was named one of four finalists Friday for the Citizen Naismith Trophy, awarded each year to the outstanding player in women’s college basketball.
She’s joined by Louisville senior Asia Durr, Iowa senior Megan Gustafson and Oregon junior Sabrina Ionescu.
The winner will be announced April 6 between days of the Final Four.
Also this week, all five Irish starters — Ogunbowale, Turner, Shepard, Marina Mabrey and Jackie Young — were listed among the 52 finalists for Women’s Basketball Coaches Association All-America honors.
Notre Dame was the only school with five players on the list, followed by Connecticut and Oregon at three players each.
The 10-player team will be announced April 4.
All in the family
Basketball family ties abound for Bethune-Cookman.
Among them, Brown’s twin brother, Chad, is playing for Central Florida in the men’s NCAA Tourney, while Blair-Lewis’ husband, Eric Lewis, is a veteran NBA referee.
He worked both the Eastern and Western Conference finals last season.
UCF, a No. 9 seed, was slated to play eighth seed Virginia Commonwealth in a Friday late game.
WHO: Bethune-Cookman (21-10) vs. Notre Dame (30-3), followed by 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; $18 to $30 for first two rounds (second round Monday).
RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).
NOTING: This is Notre Dame’s 24th consecutive NCAA Tourney appearance and Bethune-Cookman’s first ever. ... The Irish have won 14 straight postseason home games since falling to Minnesota in the 2009 opening round. … ND is a No. 1 seed for the eighth straight year — the best active streak in the country — and for the ninth time overall. The Irish are 36-6 as a top seed with national titles in 2001 and 2018. Four of the six losses have come against fellow No. 1 seeds. … BCU backup guard Kindell Fincher is a native of Fort Wayne. She led Canterbury to Class 1A state titles in 2012 and 2013, and a 2A runner-up finish in 2014. The Indiana All-Star closed as the No. 18 scorer in girls state history with 2,151 points. A graduate transfer from Xavier, where she averaged 6.5 points over three seasons, Fincher is at 3.4 points and 13.6 minutes this season for the Wildcats. … Notre Dame is averaging 8,587 in home attendance this season. Bethune-Cookman averaged 404.
QUOTING: “Sophomore year, she actually quit. She didn’t think she was getting the playing time she deserved. Then she kind of came back to her senses and allowed herself to be coached. The next year, she was (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) Player of the Year, and obviously this year, she’s helped take a very (injury-hit) team to this place right here.” — Vanessa Blair-Lewis, Bethune-Cookman coach, on senior guard Angel Golden
“Notre Dame has about eight McDonald’s All-Americans, and we have about eight kids that like to eat at McDonald’s. so we do have something in common.”
Bethune-Cookman women's basketball coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis