Noie: Notre Dame reserves ready to help starters with heavy NCAA lifting

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO

The eye roll said it all.

It was mid-October, before the Notre Dame women’s basketball team won at least 30 games for a ninth straight season. Before the Irish won a sixth Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, secured another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament or advanced to the Sweet 16 for a 10th-straight season.

Before all of that arrived, one prominent player was asked something in relation to how it all ended — last season when the Irish surfed a short postseason rotation of basically six all the way to the school’s second national championship.

A deep and talented and healthy team to start this season, would the returners welcome more options on the bench?

Thus, the eye roll, which seemed to say that sometimes less can be more. After all, it worked last postseason. Why not again?

Two games into the NCAA tournament, two home games that the Irish won by an average of 35 points, further showed that Notre Dame (32-3) might be peaking at just the right time to not only roll through this weekend’s regional round, but right through the following weekend’s Final Four. The Irish never trailed and never were seriously challenged. The starters spent a lot of time sitting and watching. That helped give them something they didn’t get this time last year — a bench boost.

Yes, Notre Dame’s starting lineup is without peer this season. Maybe ever. The five of Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, Brianna Turner and Jackie Young are closing in on a combined 10,000 career points (9,905). That ranks as the most in college basketball history — men’s or women’s. Ever.

All can take over games in certain ways. All have WNBA futures. All maybe sooner than later.

But the time, for now, is now. For the Irish to get to where they want to go, the bench can provide more assistance than the last lap around the tournament block. The starters know it. The reserves know it. Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw knows it.

“It’s important to get the bench going,” McGraw said Friday at Wintrust Arena, where Notre Dame faces No. 4 seed Texas A&M (26-7) in Saturday’s first game of the Chicago Regional at 4 p.m. (South Bend time). “You never know when you’re going to be called upon.”

Last weekend, it was sophomore center Mikayla Vaughn and freshman guard Abby Prohaska who were called to contribute. Averaging 3.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 10.4 minutes during the regular season, Vaughn averaged 6.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 18.5 minutes the first two games. In the opener against Bethune-Cookman, she nearly notched her first career double-double with nine points and 11 rebounds. Afterward, McGraw lamented that she should have played more than her 23 minutes, one short of her career high.

Vaughn would’ve been cool with that.

“You can always do more even if you’re doing as much as you possibly can,” Vaughn said. “It’s March and anything can happen.

“That’s how I look at it. It’s the Twilight Zone here.”

More is more

Prohaska averaged 1.8 points and 1.9 rebounds in 15.2 minutes her first time through college basketball. She’s averaging 1.0 points and 2.0 rebounds in 19.0 tournament minutes. Part of that’s out of necessity. Someone has been needed to help spell Mabrey after the senior hyper-extended her right knee in the week leading into the first weekend of tournament play.

Mabrey’s been slow to get her scoring game going (she scored two total points the first two games), while Prohaska knows why she’s on the court. To defend. To hustle. To compete. She played 18 scoreless minutes against Michigan State, but had four fouls. She plays. Hard.

McGraw mentioned that Prohaska may not always be headed in the right direction (she is still a freshman), but it’s fun to see her figure it out.

“You’re always trying to make sure you have the right focus and the right attitude when you step out on the court,” Prohaska said. “There’s higher stakes.”

It’s wild when Prohaska thinks about it. This time last year, she was home in Ohio watching on television as Notre Dame played this same Texas A&M team in the same Sweet 16 spot. That game unfolded in Spokane, Wash. Saturday’s site is an 80-minute ride from the Notre Dame campus.

Eight buses filled of fans are expected to trek across the Indiana Toll Road. It won’t be home, but it may feel like it. Consider it Purcell Pavilion West.

McGraw expects this one to be more of a track meet than chess match. Like first to 70 — or 80 — wins. The starters may combine for another staggering state line like they did against Michigan State — 79 points, 37 rebounds, 18 assists — but the bench is ready to offer something.

“It’s important that we’re ready,” Vaughn said.

It was Thursday’s quick travel day — from South Bend to the team hotel on the south end of the big city — that allowed Prohaska to realize that she’s actually IN the NCAA tournament. It was tough to grasp that last weekend. Those two home games felt more like two non-league snoozers. This weekend requires more attention. It has a different feel. There’s more buzz. Higher stakes. More attention. And higher pulse rates.

“On the bus ride here, I thought about it,” Prohaska said. “It was like, ‘Wow, we’re here. It’s happening. This is happening.’”

On Saturday, it again may happen for Vaughn, who missed out on last season’s tournament run while rehabilitating a shredded left knee. It may happen for Prohaska, who’ll always have a spot in McGraw’s rotation given her desire to defend. It might happen for fellow freshman guard Jordan Nixon.

Eye roll aside, the Irish believe in their bench. This weekend. And next. Notre Dame’s starters remain without peer. But the reserves are a key cog, regardless of what the stats say.

“Abby comes in and just plays so hard for us; Mik is huge on the glass for us,” Young said. “They’re definitely a spark for us.”

Notre Dame freshman guard Abby Prohaska secured a role early in NCAA tournament play thanks to her defense.
Notre Dame’s Mikayla Vaughn (30) shoots over Louisville’s Kylee Shook (21) during Thursday’s game in South Bend.