Notes: Summer school can't come soon enough for Notre Dame-bound Sam Brunelle

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. — Wedged just inside the front door of a downtown hotel is a pop-up souvenir stand where they’re selling hats and shirts and pennants from the four teams remaining in the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament.

Nearby, there’s constant traffic cruising the help desk with Final Four questions — from where to park to the best place to eat near Amalie Arena.

Friday morning, it was all about the present of women’s college basketball. But just off to the side in a lounge area of the lobby, sat part of the future for Notre Dame.

A big part.

A year already has passed since she quietly committed to play for coach Muffet McGraw. Six months have passed since she signed her national letter of intent. But each time someone mentions Notre Dame, forward Samantha Brunelle smiles.

There she goes again.

“Every time I see them, it gets me more excited,” said Brunelle, in town this week as part of the inaugural Women’s Next Generation program, which gives some of the nation’s top high school seniors a chance to attend a three-day basketball mini-camp and experience the Final Four. “I can’t wait to get there in June. I wish it were tomorrow.”

A five-star recruit considered the nation’s top prospect prior to her senior year at William Monroe (Va.) High School, Brunelle is back on the court and doing what she does — shooting it with accuracy from distance — since surgery for a broken left foot in December.

The injury was discovered by accident. Brunelle landed awkwardly going up for a rebound in a December game and badly rolled her ankle. It was in the emergency room that doctors deemed the ankle fine, but spotted that a bone in her foot cracked.

Expected to miss eight weeks, Brunelle was back in five. If she could play even a handful of games in her final season, she was going to play. She was hesitant the first couple times back on the court. Then the school’s all-time leading scorer (2,236 points) and rebounder (1,227) went for 22 points and 22 rebounds in a state semifinal loss.

“I just cut it loose,” said the 6-foot-2 Brunelle, named the national player of the year this week by the National High School Coaches Association. “I just let it go and kind of forgot about it. If I’m thinking about my foot the whole time, I’m not going to play my game.”

Brunelle’s seemingly always playing her game, whether back home in Virginia, down in Florida the last few days or other points around the globe. She won the 3-point contest at last week’s McDonald’s All-American game in Atlanta, where she had seven points and three rebounds in 15 minutes. Next weekend, she’ll participate in a national three-on-three tournament. If her team wins that, it’s off to Mongolia and the world finals the first week of June. She’ll also play in the Jordan Brand Classic all-star game (along with future Irish teammate Anaya Peoples) in Las Vegas later this month. A member of USA Basketball, she already has been to Argentina, Belarus, Latvia and Spain.

“It’s been good for me to have these experiences,” she said.

It’s often been all ball all the time for Brunelle. She figured that between fifth grade and her sophomore year of high school, she trained seven days a week, sometimes twice a day. She seldom did what high school kids do. First time she went to a movie with her friends was sophomore year.

She was starting to get burned out on the game, so she eased up. She’s not 24/7 obsessed about it anymore.

“I stepped back and realized I need more time to be a kid,” Brunelle said. “There’s got to be a balance. It can’t be like basketball, basketball, basketball.”

On Friday inside Amalie Arena, she was a fan cheering for her future team. She kept in contact with several Irish this week via text, but their schedules never matched to where she could spend time with them or the coaching staff. There will be plenty of time for that in the coming months.

Known for her perimeter shooting specialty, Brunelle plans to arrive in South Bend a blank slate. But not with a blank stare.

“I don’t want to go in there scared,” she said. “I’ll do whatever they need me to do.”

Whirlwind week

At some point over the last few days, Irish guard Jackie Young would pause and ask herself two questions:

• What day is it?

• Where am I?

It’s been that hectic a week for the Irish, who opened it with two days in Chicago, including a regional championship victory over Stanford that didn’t end until late Monday. Following an extended on-court celebration, there was the bus ride back to campus early Tuesday morning. By that evening, the Notre Dame traveling party was on a charter flight for Florida.

With a saturated schedule of media appearances, practices, team outings, meetings and scouting sessions, with some classwork mixed in, the Irish are often on the go and rarely in one place for long.

“You definitely can lose track of the days easily,” Young said. “That’s just the fun part of basketball in April. It’s something we’ll never forget.”

The Irish admitted this week that last year’s trip to the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio was like a week of bonus basketball. Nobody expected them to advance with a roster depleted by injuries. They expected to be in Tampa this week, and are a little more accustomed to the pace everything moves. And it moves quickly.

For them, it’s just another road trip.

“You kind of know what to expect,” Young said. “We’re a little calmer this year.”

Tampa tidbits

• Prior to Friday’s national semifinal, Notre Dame had beaten Connecticut eight times over the last 11 seasons. That’s as many losses to the Irish as the Huskies have against the rest of college basketball combined.

• Connecticut went undefeated (16-0) in the American Athletic Conference for the sixth straight season. The Huskies are 120-0 overall (tournament play included) in the American since leaving the Big East in 2013-14.

• Irish guard Arike Ogunbowale’s older brother, Dare, also calls Tampa home as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He played collegiately at Wisconsin and is in his second season as a running back with the Bucs. He signed in 2017 with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent.

• Friday marked the ninth time in Notre Dame history that it’s appeared in the Final Four, including the seventh time in nine seasons. Connecticut has been to the Final Four for 12 consecutive seasons.

• Former Irish forward Erin Boley is in her first season at Oregon. The redshirt sophomore entered Friday’s semifinal against No. 1 seed Baylor averaging 12.4 points and 3.5 rebounds in 27.8 minutes. Boley averaged 6.5 points and 2.8 rebounds in 15 minutes her only year at Notre Dame (2016-17).

William Monroe High’s Samantha Brunelle, signed with Notre Dame this week, as did Anaya Peoples of Danville, Ill.
Notre Dame practices for the NCAA Final Four on Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Tampa, Fla.