Guelph helps Notre Dame women with scheduling headache

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — First, Mark Walton helped give Notre Dame a player who would become one of its best ever in Natalie Achonwa.

More recently, the University of Guelph women’s basketball head coach gave the Irish a break on a scheduling headache.

Still, a young and struggling ND club can’t afford to give much back when it faces Walton’s underdog Gryphons out of Ontario, Canada, in a rare mid-season exhibition Saturday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion.

“It’s going to be like any regular game,” Irish freshman Sam Brunelle said Friday before practice.

“Even though it doesn’t count toward the season, it counts toward us working on our game, working on different aspects of our defenses and offenses.”

“We’re treating it like a real game,” ND coach Muffet McGraw echoed. “We have to.”

The matchup, as is tradition with exhibitions, was originally planned for preseason.

The Irish, however, were having trouble sufficiently filling the December portion of their schedule, caused in part by final exams — a no-games-allowed window — falling a bit later than usual, Dec. 16-20.

Not only has Notre Dame (5-7) not played since losing 105-94 to No. 16 DePaul on Dec. 11 for its fifth defeat in six games, but following Saturday’s exhibition, the Irish won’t play again until opening the Atlantic Coast Conference portion of their season Dec. 29 at home against Clemson.

Only once in McGraw’s 33 seasons has ND had a longer stretch between regular-season games that count than this season’s 18, that being 20 days in December 1994.

Further, even when factoring in Saturday’s contest, the 10 days between DePaul and Guelph account for the program’s longest layoff within a regular season since 11 days in December 2012.

“He was so gracious to help us out,” McGraw said of Walton agreeing to shift Saturday’s game to its new landing spot, “because they had to rearrange their whole schedule.”

That rearrangement does help the Gryphons break up their own even-longer layoff — they haven’t played since Nov. 30 and won’t play after the ND game until Jan. 8 — but nevertheless, it’s at least the second time Walton’s lent the Irish a hand of sorts.

The other came about a decade ago, when he helped connect McGraw with Achonwa, a native of Guelph who would go on to help the Irish reach Final Fours in each of her four seasons (2010-11 to 2013-14), and who just last month Became the sixth women’s player inducted into ND’s Ring of Honor.

Achonwa played for Walton as a teen in the Canada National Elite Development Academy.

“Mark was instrumental in the recruiting process,” McGraw shared Friday. “He knew (Irish men’s coach) Mike Brey somehow, so he came down to see Mike one time, introduced himself and our relationship kind of grew. He’s just a great guy, and of course, having Natalie, that cemented the whole thing.”

Sentiment aside, McGraw acknowledged she’s “very nervous” about how little time she’s had with her developing team lately, and about how she’ll have none while they’re away on their holiday break that extends from the end of Saturday’s game until next Thursday’s return to campus.

Since the DePaul contest, the Irish have practiced just three times as a team while focusing on finals, but they’ve also stayed active on their own, according to Brunelle.

“We haven’t been playing or practicing every other day for a while now, so whether it’s runs or lifts or court workouts, it’s important to keep our conditioning up and to keep our shots sinking,” Brunelle said. “We did have a certain amount we had to get done by Wednesday, and we all got those done and I think exceeded that. Everybody’s always in the gym when they should be. Everyone wants to get better, so we get in the gym all the time.”

McGraw would like that effort to extend to the players’ time away from campus.

“We expect them to get in the gym, get a workout in, maybe a lift, to try to keep the cardio up, because it’s been a long time since we’ve had (regular) practices,” McGraw said, “So, the cardio for sure, and then get in the gym and shoot. I’m sure some of them will.”

Mikki and Abby

Irish junior center Mikki Vaughn still has not been cleared to participate in contact workouts since suffering a sprained right knee in the Nov. 5 opener at Fordham.

McGraw said it remains possible that Vaughn will be ready in time for the Clemson game, but answered “no” when asked if it’s a likelihood.

Meanwhile, sophomore guard Abby Prohaska’s resumption of full basketball activities is not imminent, either.

Her return was previously described as “sometime in January” under a best-case scenario, but on Friday, McGraw termed that return as “the end of January” at best.

Prohaska was diagnosed shortly before the season with blood clots in both lungs.

McGraw said there remains a chance Prohaska will not return at all this season and be redshirted.

Sam and Twitter

Brunelle said she hopes to get her Twitter account, @sambrunelle33, back soon.

Followers may have noticed that it was recently suspended.

“It’s just a little mistake I made,” Brunelle explained with a laugh, adding that she did not intend to violate Twitter’s terms. “I made a video and it had copyrighted music to it, so they suspended my account.”

Brunelle said she likes Twitter, a social media platform that most of the Irish are on, and would like to have the account back.

“It’s a work in progress,” Brunelle said of having it restored. “It would be a great Christmas present, but I don’t know.”

Notre Dame’s Sam Brunelle (33) celebrates against DePaul on Dec. 11 at Purcell Pavilion.

WHO: Guelph (9-5) vs. Notre Dame (5-7), exhibition.

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

WHEN: Saturday, 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $18.

TV/WEB: None.

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


NOTING: Just like the Irish, the Gryphons have lost five of their last six. This one, as an exhibition, will not count for Notre Dame. Guelph, meanwhile, does count exhibitions as part of its record in some sections on its athletics website and does not count such games in others. The Gryphons, who are 5-5 in Ontario University Athletics play, went 4-0 over the part of their schedule labeled “preseason,” handily winning each of their three games that came against U.S. opponents. All of those were non-NCAA Division I foes, with Guelph downing St. John Fisher (Rochester, N.Y.) 73-46, Viterbo (La Crosse, Wis.) 95-43 and Trine (Angola, Ind.) 68-38. … All 15 players on the Gryphon roster hail from Ontario, Canada. … Guelph, when it qualifies, competes during postseason in the OUA playoffs. The program has not made it past the quarterfinals of that event since reaching the semifinals in 2007. … Guelph head coach Mark Walton is in his fourth season at his alma mater with a 41-52 record. Before that he was boys head coach for 27 years at Cathedral High in Hamilton, Ontario, compiling a 723-86 mark.

QUOTING: “It’s the craziest thing. Even in high school when I had sprained ankles that were really bad or something like that, I’d come back the next game and it would be like my best game all season, so it’s something weird. Always has been.” — Sam Brunelle, Notre Dame forward, on scoring a career-high 31 against DePaul and winning ACC Freshman of the Week in the game that came three days after injuring her knee against UConn and being termed questionable to play.