Notre Dame's Mikayla Vaughn out 4-6 weeks with knee sprain
Destinee Walker can relate better than most to what Mikayla Vaughn is going through.
Walker’s already navigated her own double dip of extended time away from college basketball due to injury.
“It’s tough, but just stay strong, stay positive and … God’s got you,” Walker said Thursday of what she’ll tell her Notre Dame teammate once she gets a chance to talk further with the junior center.
Vaughn, ND’s only player with any appreciable collegiate experience in the post, is expected to be sidelined four to six weeks with a right knee sprain, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said before practice Thursday afternoon.
McGraw acknowledged that there were visions of Vaughn’s injury — suffered in the third quarter of Tuesday’s season-opening 60-55 win at Fordham — being even worse as the team was awaiting results from Wednesday evening’s MRI, but added that it’s plenty bad enough as is for a group plenty short on size, experience and depth.
“She’s a little disappointed right now, obviously, just coming back into the year,” McGraw said of Vaughn, who missed most of 2017-18 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and played sparingly most of last season.
“It’s hard for all of us really,” McGraw said. “She doesn’t want to let the team down and she knows how much we need her, need her experience. I mean, she was our leader and now we’re not just without her presence, but her leadership. It’s huge for a young team like this.”
The loss of the 6-foot-3 Vaughn — who had eight points, nine rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes Tuesday — came just one day after sophomore guard Abby Prohaska announced she would be out indefinitely due to blood clots in her lungs. Prohaska’s not expected back until January at the earliest.
She and Vaughn own the most experience in Notre Dame uniforms on the roster, and even that includes just four career starts between them.
Now the No. 16-ranked Irish are down to seven scholarship players as they head into Friday night’s home opener against Loyola of Maryland.
Of those seven, five are guards, while the two forwards are 6-2 freshman Sam Brunelle, regarded as the team’s best 3-point shooter, and 6-4 sophomore Danielle Cosgrove, who averaged just 4.9 minutes last season.
“I thought we finished the game really strong with Sam at the five,” McGraw said of Tuesday’s win. “We have a lot of ideas for how we can play with five guards, but certainly against teams with a big post, it’s going to be a huge problem. We haven’t encountered it yet, but it’s coming up soon, Monday (when Tennessee visits).”
McGraw expressed confidence that “Cosgrove will fill in nicely, but after that, we’ve got to find somebody else. I think (5-10 former walk-on Katie) Cole will come in and give some minutes in the post, but we’re going to be incredibly shorthanded with having to play a guard in there.”
Walker refused to be anything but hopeful.
“For sure I am,” the graduate transfer from North Carolina said. “Sam’s a big girl and so is Dani. I’m very confident in all my teammates. I know we’ll step up in ways we’re supposed to.”
Walker stepped up in ways beyond those she was supposed to Tuesday.
The 5-foot-10 guard added 10 rebounds, tying a career high, to 10 points for a double-double in her 38-minute Irish debut. It was just her second career double-double, the other coming in one of the 57 games she played at Carolina.
“I was really pleased,” McGraw said of Walker’s initial ND outing. “I never expected her to have 10 rebounds. I thought she’d have some steals, thought she’d do a lot of different things, but rebounding wasn’t one of her jobs. Now it is. … It’s everybody’s job now.”
Entering Tuesday, Walker had played just 39 minutes since January 2017.
She returned to the Tar Heels last season after missing the final third of 2016-17 and all of 2017-18 with a right knee injury.
Then she suffered a torn labrum in her right hip just four games into last season, shelving her again.
“As soon as I came here,” Walker said of transferring to Notre Dame, “they rehabbed me, had me on a plan and I’ve felt better than ever. Since I’ve come here, I’ve been on the upswing and I barely feel (pain) anymore. It’s definitely going the right way.”
Walker said recording a double-double after so much time out “meant a lot to me. To be able to come back and score a few points and rebound and play hard for my team … I like this team a lot, love this team a lot. We’ve only really known each other for a couple months now and we love playing together.”
Walker, who averaged 12.6 points and 3.5 rebounds during her Carolina career, says she’s eager for her Purcell Pavilion debut as a member of the Irish.
While with the Heels, she typically played in front of crowds in the 2000s. ND averaged over 8,400 for home games last season.
“I’m definitely excited to be on the other side of things,” said Walker, who played in front of 8,942 when she visited Notre Dame in January 2016. “Before, the fans were against me here, so to be able to come here and play in front of their amazing fans and a Hall of Fame coach with a team I love, it’s so exciting.”
She just wishes Vaughn was going to be on the court as well.
“We just found out today,” Walker said of her teammate being projected to miss several weeks.
“She’s a great leadership presence and great defensive presence and scores points. It’s a sad loss for us, but I’m sure she’ll rehab well and be back soon.”
Ring of honor aced
Prior to Friday’s game, Natalie Achonwa will become the sixth former Notre Dame women’s player inducted into the Ring of Honor at Purcell Pavilion.
“She has meant so much to me and to the program,” McGraw said Thursday of the two-time Irish All-American. “She’s done so much for us. She’s somebody we constantly talked about when Brianna Turner came in. (It was) ‘watch film of Ace, watch and see what Ace did, see if you can learn from what Ace did.’
“She was really the best passing post I’ve ever seen,” McGraw said, “and one of the smartest.
She could look ahead and see what was coming next, what was coming two passes later. She really was a coach on the floor, an amazing leader, and I’m so excited we can reward her with this honor.”
During her Irish playing career from 2010 to 2014, Achonwa helped Notre Dame to four straight Final Fours, including three national title games.
A native of Ontario, the 6-3 Achonwa recently completed her fifth season with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever.
She’ll join Ruth Riley-Hunter, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Niele Ivey, Beth (Morgan) Cunningham and Kayla McBride in the Ring of Honor.
WHO: Loyola of Maryland (0-0) vs. No. 16 Notre Dame (1-0).
WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.
WHEN: Friday, 6:30 p.m.
TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.
TV/WEB: ACC Network Extra.
RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).
NOTING: Notre Dame, which won its 25th straight opener on Tuesday at Fordham, is trying to add its 25th straight victory in a home opener. ... The Irish have won 89 straight home games against unranked opponents (AP poll) since falling 65-63 to West Virginia on Feb. 12, 2012. … Freshman Sam Brunelle and sophomore Katlyn Gilbert led a balanced attack against the Rams with 14 points apiece. Freshman Anaya Peoples added 11 points and seven rebounds. Notre Dame got to the line 33 times, making 20, while limiting Fordham to just two free throws. The Irish overcame 21 turnovers to 16 by the Rams. … Loyola, which started 1-15, finished 7-24 last season, including 5-13 in the Patriot League, but the Greyhounds return their top three scorers and six of their top seven. … That group includes 6-1 junior Isabella Therien (14.3 points per game last season), 5-10 sophomore Taleah Dixon (9.7 ppg) and 6-0 junior Delaney Connolly (9.1), as well as 5-11 senior defensive whiz Stephanie Karcz, who ranked fourth in the nation in steals last winter at 4.2 to go with 6.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Karcz was the PL defensive player of the year as a sophomore and has been on the league’s all-defensive team three times. … Loyola shot just 33.8 percent from the field overall last season and 28.3 percent on 3-pointers. … Isabella and freshman sister Ava are daughters of longtime NHL defenseman and current Philadelphia Flyers broadcaster Chris Therien.
QUOTING: “The freshmen were jittery, and honestly the whole team was jittery. I mean, we have so many new players. I thought we were fortunate to win the game, (but) it’s a great first game. We learned so much about ourselves.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on Tuesday’s 60-55 win over Fordham.