As Destinee Walker goes, so does Notre Dame

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Not always, but mostly, Notre Dame’s destiny has been tied to its Destinee.

Destinee Walker is as aware of the link as anybody, and she’s claiming an ambitious outlook on minimizing the down side of it going forward.

“Some games, you’re going to have off games,” the Irish graduate transfer guard said Saturday afternoon before practice. “It sucks that in my case most of those are games we’ve lost, but I’m just trying to remain positive and not let that happen again for the remainder of the season.”

Notre Dame (6-8, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) continues its women’s basketball season at 4 p.m. Sunday with a visit to Syracuse (7-6, 1-1), where the Orange are coming off a 90-89 overtime win against No. 8-ranked and previously unbeaten Florida State.

Walker’s coming off a game in which she didn’t start for the first time this season, but popped off the bench to score 16 points in 29 minutes and make a series of pivotal plays down the stretch as the visiting Irish held off late-rallying Pittsburgh for a 60-52 win.

Walker had been questionable to even play after experiencing back spasms a day earlier.

Suiting up wound up a game-time decision.

“She didn’t practice even at the shootaround,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday. “She was just trying to get it stretched out all day long. She came in off the bench, and then I didn’t want to take her out after I got her in. She was loosened up a little bit. She was sore, but I was really happy that she kind of pushed through it.”

Walker said Saturday that she’s still experiencing some pain in her back and neck, but is “doing pretty well” compared to the way she felt before the Pitt contest.

“I did a lot of treatment before the game and once I got into the flow of the game, I started not thinking about it as much,” Walker said.

An Irish victory accompanied by an effective Walker proved nothing new.

She’s been perhaps the Notre Dame player whose performances have most mirrored the team’s outcomes this season.

“Absolutely,” McGraw said of whether Walker’s been an X factor. “If you look at the games she’s played well ... the games where she’s really on, where she’s scoring, she’s playing better defensively usually when she does that, too.”

In ND’s six wins, Walker has averaged 16.8 points. In the eight losses, she’s averaged 10.3.

Overall, she’s at 13.1 points and second on the team in minutes at 35.1.

Walker has compiled net field goal percentages of 50.0 in the wins and 37.9 in the losses.

Her extremes have been as volatile as Michiana’s weather. She’s had 27, 20 and 19-point games this season (two of those three coming in wins), and three other outings with four or fewer points (all coming in losses).

From 3-point range, she’s gone as hot as 5-of-8 (a win) and as cold as 0-of-9 (a loss).

“I don’t know if it’s eluded me or not,” Walker said of her consistency level. “Just having not played in awhile, it’s about getting my mindset to play hard every game.”

Due to multiple injuries suffered over multiple years at North Carolina, Walker had played just 39 minutes over 33 months heading into this season.

“I think it’s a lot (about) confidence,” McGraw said of Walker’s uneven play. “I think that really everybody struggles with confidence when you’re six and eight and your shots aren’t going in as much as they do when you come in and practice and practice. When you don’t have the same result in the game, I think it’s really hard to have the emotional maturity to say the next one’s in, to have that swagger. You know, we don’t have Arike (Ogunbowale) out here with that swagger to kind of show ’em, like, it’s going to be OK, you can miss shots. So we’re all still struggling with that.”

Orange glow

Syracuse’s record may not spin heads, but the Orange have heated to at least a shade of red in their last four games, all against ranked opponents.

A 77-63 victory over then-No. 19 Michigan State — those are the same Spartans who beat the Irish 72-69 — was followed by narrow losses of 71-69 to now-No. 19 West Virginia and 62-58 at now-No. 7 Louisville, in front of that 90-89 OT win Thursday over Florida State.

“They’re one of the best teams in the league, I think,” McGraw said, referring to an ACC that features four ranked clubs, Syracuse not being one of them.

The Orange also might be the first opponent in at least the last three years that heads into a matchup against ND with a tougher schedule to date than the Irish.

Besides the above-mentioned matchups, Syracuse already has gone against now-No. 2 Oregon and now No. 5 Stanford, losing each decisively.

The Orange also have visited then-No. 24 Michigan. They lost that one 84-76, while Notre Dame beat the host Wolverines 76-72 in what remains ND’s top win of the season so far.

“They are a really good team,” McGraw said of Syracuse, which is 5-1 at home. “With that great depth and athletic ability, they press the whole game, so we’ll see how that goes.”

Prohaska done

Abby Prohaska’s season is over before it ever started.

After suggesting the possibility on several occasions, McGraw said Saturday that Prohaska definitely will not play at all this season.

The sophomore guard was diagnosed with blood clots in both her lungs shortly before the Nov. 4 season opener.

She was later cleared to resume some basketball-related activity and was shooting with the team on Saturday, but will now be up for a medical redshirt, according to McGraw, and have three seasons of eligibility remaining.

As a freshman last season, the feisty lefty appeared in 38 of 39 games for the national runner-up Irish with three starts. She averaged 1.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 0.8 steals in 14.4 minutes per outing.

Notre Dame’s Destinee Walker (24) drives to the basket against Toledo Nov. 20 in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s Abby Prohaska guards Bethune-Cookman’s in a March 23, 2019 tournament game in South Bend. Prohaska will not play this season. She was diagnosed with blood clots in her lungs shortly before the Nov. 4 season opener.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Notre Dame (6-8, 1-1 ACC) vs. Syracuse (7-6, 1-1).

WHERE: Carrier Dome (34,616), Syracuse, N.Y.

WHEN: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TV: ACC Network.

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

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTRE DAME VS. SYRACUSE

NOTING: Syracuse leaders are junior guard Kiara Lewis (17.0 points per game, 5.6 assists), senior guard Gabrielle Cooper (9.8 ppg), 6-1 sophomore swing Emily Engstler (9.7 ppg, 11.0 rebounds, 1.8 blocks), 6-2 junior wing Digna Strautmane (9.7 ppg, 30-of-78 on 3-pointers for 38.5%) and 6-2 sophomore forward Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi (8.2 ppg, 58% field goals, 82% free throws). Engstler scored the game-winner at the buzzer on a layup off a side inbound in the Orange’s 90-89 overtime win over No. 8 Florida State on Thursday. ... Irish leaders are sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert (14.6 ppg), freshman guard Anaya Peoples (14.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg), freshman forward Sam Brunelle (13.4 ppg), grad student guard Destinee Walker (13.1 ppg), junior center Mikki Vaughn (11.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.3 steals) and grad student guard Marta Sniezek (5.7 apg, 17 drawn charges, including at least one in seven straight games). Vaughn, in just her third game of the season and second back from a knee injury, had 17 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two blocks over 28 minutes during ND’s 60-52 victory Thursday at Pittsburgh. ... Notre Dame leads the all-time series over the Orange 34-2 (matching its 34-6 record against Marquette for most wins against any opponent). That includes 15 straight victories at Syracuse on the heels of the Orange winning the first meeting there on Feb. 4, 1989.

QUOTING: “It felt so great. We’ve been missing a big inside presence and her communication. For her, in only her second game back, to have such a big game so quickly was great. Everyone was excited to have her back.” — Destinee Walker, Notre Dame guard, on the return of teammate Mikki Vaughn against Pittsburgh.