Notre Dame fifth-year player Walker still learning the game

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Destinee Walker is in her fifth year of college basketball, but that hasn’t kept her from feeling like she’s still on a steep learning curve.

Particularly with the new education that has come by virtue of Walker’s transfer from North Carolina to Notre Dame.

“I’m learning to play off the ball a lot better,” the guard said Wednesday before practice of why she’s been able to average 15.7 points over her first three games in an Irish uniform.

“Our offense is more back doors and reading off of cuts,” Walker said. “(Coach Muffet McGraw) really helps you understand that you play offense off of what the defense gives you, and I didn’t really have that factor at my old school. So coming here and her teaching me how to read better has helped me a lot.”

It’s not like scoring wasn’t already a major part of Walker’s basketball acumen. It’s just perhaps become more refined.

She arrived at North Carolina in 2015 out of Orlando, Fla., as the nation’s No. 17 prospect in her class, per ESPN, and as the first player in Orange County girls history to tally 2,500 points, including a 24.9 average as a senior at Lake Highland Prep.

She made an immediate splash as a Tar Heel with a 13.9 scoring average as a freshman.

She was averaging 12.4 as a sophomore before being shelved for the final third of that season and all of the next one by a knee injury.

Then, filling only a reserve role during the first month of her comeback last November, she was cut down again just four games into it, this time by a torn labrum in her right hip.

The net effect heading into this season at Notre Dame — just 39 total minutes played in the last 33 months.

Yet she’s leading the No. 15-ranked Irish (2-1) heading into Thursday’s home game against No. 16 Michigan State (2-0) at 37.0 minutes per game.

That’s to go with that 15.7 scoring norm that is second to sophomore Katlyn Gilbert’s 16.7.

“I actually feel great,” Walker said Wednesday of whether the minutes are taking a toll. “I’ve felt better than ever. I’ve made so much more progress than I ever thought I was going to.”

Walker credits a plan put in place by 14th-year Notre Dame trainer Anne Marquez.

“When I first started, there was a wall I had to push through,” Walker said of her initial workouts with the Irish. “I was definitely getting tired, but I think the plan they’ve had me on is helping me push through that.”

Now McGraw wants something more from Walker.

She wants her veteran guard to take even more shots, never mind that Walker’s 43 percent on 2-pointers and 4-of-13 accuracy on 3-pointers aren’t wildly special.

“I think she’s open and passing up shots,” McGraw said Wednesday. “I don’t think she needs to try to create any more. I think she already has them. She’s just not taking all of them. I’d like her just to hunt her shot a bit more and really look to score. We need scoring and she’s somebody that’s capable of scoring.”

“Kind of, yeah,” Walker said of whether she was surprised when McGraw expressed that same desire after Tuesday’s loss to Tennessee. “She’s been telling me that. She’s putting the ball in my hands. She’s expecting me to shoot more, especially the open shots, so I have to be a little less passive and more assertive on the offensive end, and I will be.”

As it is, besides her 36 attempts from the field, Walker’s navigated her way to another 20 from the line, tied for the team lead, and made a team-best 15 of those.

“I think it’s something I’m doing,” Walker said of whether getting to the line has been a focus. “When I miss (outside) shots, I’m trying to be more assertive about driving.”

To go along with her offense, Walker is averaging 6.0 rebounds and shares the team lead in steals at 2.3.

“She can defend. She can do so many things,” McGraw said. “She just has experience. Not a lot — she’s only played a year and a half (of college ball) — but compared to most of the team, she’s got a lot of experience.”

Sparty’s return

Michigan State invades the same venue Thursday where it saw last season ended — and will do so with much the same team.

Top-seeded Notre Dame spanked the ninth-seeded Spartans 91-63 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March, leading 52-26 by halftime.

While MSU features four starters and multiple reserves back from that game — and has added freshman Alyza Winston as its top scorer — ND counters with just one healthy scholarship individual who appeared that day.

That’s backup Danielle Cosgrove, who played five minutes.

“Oh yeah,” McGraw said of whether to expect a motivated Spartan club, one that won’t care that the Irish have lost five starters to the WNBA and are dealing with multiple players sidelined by injury or illness.

“I think they have depth,” McGraw said of Michigan State. “They’re playing a lot of people. It’s hard to say how many they’ll play (Thursday), but so far, they’re playing a lot. They’ve got a lot of spark off the bench, and they’re a really good 3-point shooting team.”

With just seven healthy scholarship players, one of them a former walk-on, the Irish don’t have many options for finding a spark off their bench. They also can’t afford to spare their top five players from playing heavy minutes.

Compounding the issue, “I feel like we’re not in game shape yet,” McGraw said. “I don’t feel like we have the mental energy to withstand a 40-minute game, and also physically, I don’t think we’re ready for it.”

For freshmen starters like ND’s Sam Brunelle and Anaya Peoples, the challenge has been heightened.

“As a freshman, you’re not used to the pace of the game anyway,” McGraw said, “and now you’re playing 38 minutes and getting beat up in the process, so I think it’s been difficult for them.”

Recruiting update

Alli Campbell, Alasia Hayes and Amirah Abdur-Rahim each made their commitments to Notre Dame official Wednesday during the first day of the NCAA’s eight-day early signing period.

Nat Marshall and Maddy Westbeld are expected to make theirs official yet this week, giving the Irish a class of five that is ranked No. 3 by ESPN.

While Campbell, Hayes, Marshall and Westbeld are all five-star recruits, the three-star, bloodline-rich Abdur-Rahim out of the Atlanta area brings some intrigue of her own.

She was rated No. 60 in her class by ESPN in 2018, but has since dropped out of that outlet’s top 100 and does not appear in Prospects Nation’s top 150.

The 6-foot-2 forward is the younger sister of former NBA star and current NBA G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

According to an ESPN story from the fall of 2018, she’s the 11th of William Abdur-Rahim’s 13 children. Eight of her older siblings have gone on to play college basketball.

While Notre Dame had not reported word of Abdur-Rahim’s signature as of early Wednesday evening, her high school, Saint Francis of Alpharetta, Ga., posted a photo on Twitter of her in an Irish jersey and signing.

Notre Dame suffered a recruiting loss a day earlier when Caitlin Clark, rated No. 4 by ESPN and No. 7 by Prospects Nation, opted to stay in state at Iowa. She also had the Irish and Iowa State among her three finalists.

That still didn’t keep ESPN from placing ND at that No. 3 spot overall behind Oregon and Connecticut, each with five expected signings as well.

The Ducks are likely to secure five players each rated from Nos. 10 to 33, while the Huskies’ list includes No. 1 Paige Bueckers and two others in the top 26.

ESPN slots Westbeld at No. 23, Campbell 25, Marshall 32 and Hayes 44. Prospects Nation has Marshall at No. 19, Campbell 21, Westbeld 27 and Hayes 130.

Tennessee’s Jazmine Massengill (13) tries to get past Notre Dame’s Destinee Walker Monday night at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

WHO: No. 16 Michigan State (2-0) vs. No. 15 Notre Dame (2-1).

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

WHEN: Thursday, 8 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $18.

TV: ACC Network.

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

NOTING: The Spartans head into their first road game off blowout wins of 85-50 over Eastern Michigan and 110-52 over Detroit Mercy. … MSU leaders include 5-7 freshman guard Alyza Winston (15.5 points per game, 5-of-6 on 3-pointers), 5-8 sophomore guard Nia Clouden (15.0 ppg, 3.5 steals per game, 4-of-6 on 3-pointers), 5-5 senior guard Taryn McCutcheon (10.0 ppg), 6-1 sophomore forward Tory Ozment (10.0 ppg) and 5-9 senior guard Shay Colley (8.0 rebounds, 5.0 ppg). … Pacing the Irish are Katlyn Gilbert (16.7 ppg), Destinee Walker (15.7 ppg, 2.3 spg), Sam Brunelle (14.0 ppg), Anaya Peoples (13.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.3 spg) and Marta Sniezek (5.3 assists per game). … ND’s 91-63 home win over Michigan State in the second round of last season’s NCAA Tournament was its seventh consecutive victory against the Spartans, leaving the Irish up 11-8 in the all-time series. MSU’s last win was an 82-73 overtime decision in December 2004 at Purcell Pavilion.

QUOTING: “We’re resting on defense right now, and that’s a big problem for us.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on how the regulars are handling heavy minutes.