Vaughn likely to return for Notre Dame women's hoops vs. Clemson

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame will start a sort of new women’s college basketball season Sunday, powered by the boost of getting a sort of new player.

The Irish also head into it with a definitely new perspective — as in more desperate — when it comes to chasing a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

ND (5-7, 0-0) is expected to have starting center Mikky Vaughn back when it opens Atlantic Coast Conference play by hosting Clemson (4-8, 0-1) in a 4 p.m. matchup at Purcell Pavilion.

Vaughn hasn’t played since suffering a sprained right knee in the third quarter of Notre Dame’s season-opening 60-55 win at Fordham on Nov. 5.

She’s been full go in the last few practices, though.

“The biggest thing she’s given us is just somebody who’s really active inside,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said shortly before her team’s afternoon workout Saturday.

“She has raised the level of intensity in practice,” McGraw said. “The effort has been so much better. … She’s obviously a little rusty from not playing for so long, but we’ve hardly noticed because she does so many other things. She’s a great communicator and she’s going to make our defense better just by talking and the leadership she brings.”

McGraw said she was not sure whether Vaughn would be on a trainer-dictated minutes restriction Sunday.

Vaughn said she feels her knee is 100%.

“I feel really good,” said the 6-foot-3 junior who had eight points, nine rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes at Fordham before being injured with ND up 39-29. “I think the biggest thing is just being sore from not doing everything in a month and some change, but otherwise, I feel really good.”

For all of the last eight years, and for most of the others over the last quarter century, the Irish also could feel really good by this point in the season regarding their chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament.

Especially in those last eight, speculation by the time league play began centered on whether ND would continue to do enough to earn a No. 1 seed, and the Irish typically did.

Now it’s on whether Notre Dame will even make the field.

“I think we probably got to get to 18 wins,” McGraw said. “If we get to 18 wins with our strength of schedule — right now, it’s the No. 4 strength of schedule in the country — I think our RPI will be good enough to get us in.”

Getting to 18 wins, though, won’t be easy after that 5-7 start that has left ND’s own RPI at merely No. 73.

The Irish will play 18 ACC games under this season’s newly expanded league schedule, plus the conference tournament.

To get to 18 wins, they’ll have to go something like 12-6 in the ACC regular season and 1-1 in the league tourney.

If they go 11-7 in the ACC regular season, then they’d have to win two league tournament games, but under the staggered format of that tourney, only the top two seeds in the 15-team field will be favored to win at least two games.

Notre Dame is beginning its seventh season in the ACC. Over the previous six, teams played just 16 regular-season league games.

Reviewing those six years, nine of the 10 teams that went 10-6 and each of the three that went 9-7 did make the NCAA Tourney field. Two of the five that went 8-8 also made it.

The league has proven highly regarded by the selection committee, with an average of 7.3 teams per season over the last six years making the NCAA Tourney field.

On the other hand, while the committee can choose any 32 at-large teams — 32 others will make it automatically by virtue of winning their respective conference tourneys — teams that aren’t well above .500 overall have typically been bypassed regardless of schedule strength.

If ND goes 12-6 in league play and 1-1 in the league tourney, that will leave its overall record at 18-14.

That would exactly match the worst record over the last six years by any ACC team making the field, North Carolina last March. The next-worst belongs to Virginia at 18-13 in 2018.

With Notre Dame having captured or shared the regular-season title every one of its six years in the league and having won the conference tourney in five of those six, the Irish will likely be facing payback-minded clubs every time they take the court this season.

“We have to really focus and come out ready for the other team to give us their best shot every game,” McGraw said. “We would get that always anyway, (but) it’s just this is the year everybody’s going ‘this is the year we can beat them,’ so we really cannot afford a letdown.”

At least given where teams stand at the moment, the Irish will be underdogs several more times this season. They’ll play a home-and-home against No. 7 Louisville, visit No. 8 Florida State and host No. 9 North Carolina State — those three clubs are a combined 34-1 — in addition to hosting No. 23 Miami.

“It’s going to be difficult,” McGraw said, “but looking at Mick, she gives us something we haven’t had since the Fordham game, so she’ll help.”

More Mikky

To punctuate just how little experience in a Notre Dame uniform the current Irish roster is carrying, consider this: Vaughn — a sophomore in eligibility, an individual who’s been out since the opener and a player who missed all but six games of her first season with a left knee injury — is still the one with the most career ND appearances of anybody on the team.

She’s been in 45 games. Further, sparingly used junior walk-on Nicole Benz is next at 41.

“That’s weird,” Vaughn said when the tidbit was shared with her Saturday. “That seems bizarre. It’s a mistake actually. I think I’ve hardly been in any games ever.”

Of course, Notre Dame’s two most collegiate-seasoned players overall remain transfers Marta Sniezek from Stanford and Destinee Walker from North Carolina.

In terms of Irish minutes played, Vaughn (462) trails sophomores Katlyn Gilbert (518) and Abby Prohaska (547), who remains sidelined due to illness.

Sniezek back

Sniezek, who sat out last weekend’s 92-61 exhibition win over Guelph due to plantar fasciitis, should be “OK” to play Sunday, according to McGraw, though the point guard still hadn’t practiced full court this week heading into Saturday afternoon.

Sniezek, who has started all 12 contests that count, leads the Irish in minutes per game at 36.5 and has played all but 23 seconds over her last three outings.

Her team-pacing 5.8 assists rank 17th in the nation and she’s drawn 15 opponent charging fouls, four short of ND’s unofficial single-season record.

Frosh forces

Sam Brunelle and Anaya Peoples, each averaging 14.5 points, are on their way to becoming the most prolific freshman scoring duo in Irish history.

They’re on pace to join only Mary Beth Schueth (13.0) and Carrie Bates (12.4) in 1981-82, and Arike Ogunbowale (11.4) and Marina Mabrey (10.7) in 2015-16 as Notre Dame pairs to average double digits in the same freshman season, according to Fighting Irish Media.

Also per FIM, only one other NCAA Division I team — Texas-San Antonio — has two freshmen averaging at least 14 points each this season. Mikayla Woods and Adryana Quezada are at 14.1 apiece for the Roadrunners.

Peoples, a 5-10 guard, also leads ND in rebounding at 8.3 — including a gaudy 13.3 over the last three games.

Among true DI freshmen, only she and Alexis Tucker of Texas Tech own averages of at least 14 points and eight rebounds. Tucker, a 5-11 wing for the Red Raiders, is at 16.2 and 9.1.

Notre Dame’s Mikayla Vaughn watches from the bench during the Notre Dame-Tennessee game on Nov. 11 in South Bend. Vaughn hopes to be off the bench and in the game Sunday against Clemson.

WHO: Clemson (4-8, 0-1 ACC) vs. Notre Dame (5-7, 0-0).

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

WHEN: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $25.


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

NOTING: The Tigers have already played three top-10 teams, but have not come close in any of those games, falling 84-48 to then-No. 5 South Carolina, 63-44 to then-No. 9 Maryland and 81-64 in their ACC opener to visiting No. 8 Florida State. … Clemson leaders are 6-2 senior forward Kobi Thornton (12.7 points per game, 6.5 rebounds) and 6-0 freshman forward Amari Robinson (12.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg). Kendall Spray, a 5-5 junior, is at 9.1 points and is 26-of-84 outside the arc to account for 52% of her team’s made 3-pointers. … Both teams labor from distance, with the Tigers at 27.2% and the Irish 23.1. … Notre Dame leaders include Katlyn Gilbert (15.0 ppg, 2.0 steals), Anaya Peoples (14.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Sam Brunelle (14.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Destinee Walker (13.1 ppg) and Marta Sniezek (5.2 ppg, 5.8 assists). … The Irish have won each of the six all-time meetings against Clemson, prevailing by an average of 28.7 points. … The second annual Notre Dame Baby Race takes place at halftime after last year’s warmly received inaugural event. At stake for 10 pre-registered and randomly selected competitors ages 12 months and younger: a year’s supply of diapers.

QUOTING: “I’m really not one for moral wins. I prefer actual wins.” — Mikky Vaughn, Notre Dame forward, on whether she’s encouraged by ND coming close in most losses.