Tennessee's big lineup will test young Notre Dame team

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Sam Brunelle hasn’t shot the ball to her standards yet, but the Notre Dame freshman is confident that’s going to change. So is her coach.

If that change comes with the coming to town of Tennessee, all the better.

The No. 16-ranked Irish (2-0) will likely face their stiffest test yet when the Volunteers (2-0) visit Purcell Pavilion for a 7 p.m. ESPN2 women’s basketball game Monday.

“I know the kind of player I am. I can perform way better than I’ve been performing,” Brunelle said Sunday morning before practice. “Part of that’s just shots that are gonna fall eventually. Right now, it’s not really happening for me, but I’m in the gym, I’m getting up shots, and I know they’ll fall eventually.”

A 6-foot-2 freshman forward whose lofty credentials coming out of high school were tied partially to her shooting, Brunelle has gone 10-of-27 from the field over ND’s first two games for just 37 percent, including 2-of-11 on 3-pointers for 18 percent.

Nonetheless, she’s also 4-of-4 at the line, is averaging 13.0 points, is adding 7.0 rebounds, is second in assists at 3.0 and has blocked a pair of shots.

“I think she’s doing really well,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Sunday. “I like the shots she’s getting. She’s rebounding, she’s scoring around the basket. She’s executing, she’s in the flow of things, and I feel like the shots are going to start dropping for her. She’s getting really good looks.”

Brunelle was rated the nation’s No. 1 prospect in the recruiting class of 2019 at one point by ESPN before ultimately landing at No. 6.

The player who landed at No. 2, Jordan Horston, is now the Vols’ 6-2 point guard. Brunelle and Horston have played together on multiple gold-medal winning U.S. national age-group teams.

“We know each other well,” Brunelle said. “We haven’t actually talked much in awhile, but when we’re together, we’re great friends and have had a great time.”

Horston’s just part of a considerable size edge that Tennessee will feature Monday.

The eight players who already have started at least once each for the Vols this season go 6-5, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, 6-0 and 6-0.

By comparison, Brunelle and 6-4 sophomore sub Danielle Cosgrove are the lone healthy Irish rotation regulars taller than 5-10, while Mikayla Vaughn, ND’s 6-3 junior center, remains out an estimated three to five more weeks with a knee sprain.

“They’ve gotta be the biggest team we’ll play this year,” McGraw said of Tennessee. “I don’t know of any team that’s got that kind of size. It’s going to be something that will really challenge us.”

While the Vols aren’t ranked at the moment, the storied program’s passionate fan base has reacted giddily over the offseason arrival of alum Kellie (Jolly) Harper as head coach. The team’s talent and depth each appear on the upswing.

“They’re a huge early test, a barometer of where we are,” McGraw said of Tennessee and of her own mostly young club that includes no active players who started for the Irish before this season. “I think we pretty much know where we are, but it will be good for us to see a really good team and see how far we have to go.”

McGraw says the keys for Monday’s game are not complicated.

“Rebounds and transition defense — that’s it,” the coach said. “They are the two keys. Tennessee’s very good at both and we’re not very good at either. I think that will be the game right there.”

Like the Irish, the Vols are relatively youthful and still getting acquainted with each other.

On Tennessee’s end, besides having a new coach, nine of the top 10 players in minutes have eligibility beyond this season, while the 10th is Lou Brown, who sat out last season as a transfer.

Also like the Irish, the Vols may start two freshmen Monday, with Horston joined by 6-5 Tamari Key. Horston’s averaging 10.5 points and 4.5 assists, while Key’s at 9.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.0 blocks. Both are 9-of-15 from the field.

“I love Jordan Horston’s game,” McGraw said. “I think she’s a phenomenal athlete, just a really talented player who can score in a lot of ways and is a really good defender, and then Key’s a big kid inside who uses her power and size really well. She’s active. Those are two really good freshmen.”

Key arrived out of high school at No. 47 on ESPN’s list and No. 50 by Prospects Nation to go with Horston’s No. 2 on both charts.

For ND, besides Brunelle at No. 6 via ESPN and No. 5 per Prospects Nation, guard Anaya Peoples came aboard at No. 18 and No. 8.

Of course, player rankings are long beyond mattering much now that players are in college, especially compared to how teams are blending as groups.

“In general, I think we’re getting better,” Brunelle assessed, “but we have so much improvement that we’re capable of reaching as the season goes on. I think we’ll be terrific by the end, but we have so much work to do now.”

Notre Dame’s Sam Brunelle, shown while playing for William Monroe High in Stanardsville, Va., is still looking for her shot a couple games into the season.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Tennessee (2-0) vs. No. 16 Notre Dame (2-0).

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

WHEN: Monday, 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $7 to $20.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Tennessee leaders include sophomore guard Zaay Green (13.5 points per game), freshman guard Jordan Horston (10.5 ppg, 4.5 assists per game), 6-5 freshman center Tamari Key (9.5 ppg, 8.5 rebounds per game, 4.0 blocks) and 6-2 junior swing Rennia Davis (8.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg). Five other players are averaging between 4.0 and 7.5 points. The Vols opened with a 72-68 win at East Tennessee State, then downed Central Arkansas 63-36. ... Notre Dame leaders include sophomore Katlyn Gilbert (19.0 ppg), coming off a career-high 24 points in Tuesday’s 84-60 win over Loyola of Maryland, freshman Anaya Peoples (15.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg), grad transfer Destinee Walker (14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg), freshman Sam Brunelle (13.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and grad transfer Marta Sniezek (6.0 apg). ... The Irish have won eight of the last nine meetings in this now annual series between basketball bluebloods that is expected to continue for at least another four years, but Tennessee still leads the all-time count 21-8. Since 2012, the showdown has annually taken place in January, but Monday’s will be the earliest ever on a season calendar. It will also mark the first time in the last 27 meetings that neither team is ranked in the AP top 10. The last such meeting came in December 1985, when the Vols were No. 11 and Notre Dame was unranked. ... The

Irish have taken the last four matchups at Purcell Pavilion, including two years ago when they set a program record by coming from 23 points down to win 84-70. ... Monday’s game has been designated a “Green Out,” with green glow sticks to be distributed.

QUOTING: “The offense looked better than I thought, but the defense looked worse than I thought. I think we’re doing a lot of good things offensively, which is something. I thought there were a lot of positives to take from that side. Defensively, we can fix a lot of things with just simple communication.”

— Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on Tuesday’s win after watching film.