Notre Dame's Destinee Walker goes up against former North Carolina teammates

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — As improbable the scenario seemed before the season, if Destinee Walker would happen to play the entire game Thursday, it’ll give the Notre Dame guard more minutes against North Carolina in one evening than she logged for North Carolina over all of her final two-plus seasons there.

With or without that twist, Walker will become the first-ever Irish women’s basketball player to line up against her former program when ND (11-17, 6-10) hosts the Tar Heels (16-11, 7-9) in a contest with potential Atlantic Coast Conference seeding implications.

“I’m really excited,” Walker said before practice Wednesday afternoon. “(Carolina has) a different coach (Courtney Banghart) than I played for — I played for Coach (Syliva) Hatchell — but this is a group of girls that knows me, and I haven’t been able to play the past two years, so for them to see me on the court, I’m sure it’s gonna be good.”

Walker, who leads the Irish in scoring at 14.7 points per game, missed the last third of her 2016-17 sophomore season in Chapel Hill and all of the following season with a knee injury.

Then just a few weeks before last season, she suffered a torn labrum in her right hip. She initially tried to play through it, but was shut down after four games and 39 total minutes.

Upon transferring to Notre Dame last May, she still wasn’t at full strength.

“I’ll tell you, at the beginning of the year, we didn’t know if she was going to be able to play,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Wednesday. “She didn’t start practicing until October, and even then, she would have to take some time off.

“She has really worked in the training room,” McGraw said. “I think Anne (Marquez, ND trainer) has done a great job getting her ready, but Destinee put the work in to get her body ready, and she has been incredibly durable for somebody we were not sure was gonna get through the season. Really proud of her, not just the durability, but she’s able to practice after a game, too, which is something the rest of the team is struggling with.”

Walker said Wednesday that she left Carolina for Notre Dame — undergraduate degree in hand — because “I just wanted a different opportunity. I wanted to attend a different grad school and be able to have different experiences.”

Walker stressed that her transfer “had nothing to do with Coach Hatchell. I loved Coach Hatchell.”

The sixth-winningest coach in women’s college basketball history and the only individual ever to guide programs at three different collegiate levels to national titles, Hatchell signed a separation agreement with Carolina last spring as the result of a university investigation that alleged she pressured players to play injured and made a racially insensitive comment.

“I know,” Walker said, “but I literally had nothing to do with that and we’re still in good standing.”

Walker’s in good standing with her ex-Carolina teammates, too, having hung with them some when both the Irish and Heels were participating in the Cancun Challenge last November. She counts Taylor Koenen and Leah Church as among several “close” friends on her former team.

If the Irish can beat her former team, it’ll put Walker on the winning side of the matchup two straight years. Last winter, she watched from the sideline as unranked host Carolina stunned No. 1-ranked and eventual national runner-up Notre Dame, 78-73, although the Irish avenged that with a 95-77 quarterfinal victory in the ACC Tournament.

“I’m just grateful to be on the court playing against anybody at this point,” Walker said. “I’m so grateful to be playing after being out for like two and a half years.”

Walker’s not merely playing, but playing at a rate of 35.3 minutes per outing, second on the Irish. She’s appeared in every game, despite some iffy moments due to back spasms.

Walker recently went the full 40 in a win at Georgia Tech and has logged 39 on four other occasions.

“I don’t know where we’d be without her,” McGraw said. “She’s our leading scorer. I think she’s become a very aggressive offensive player. Defensively, she does a lot of good things. She’s rebounding a little bit more. She’s doing so many great things. She just continues to get better every game.”

Walker’s intention is to continue that into next season for Notre Dame. Based on her extended injury history, she has applied for and expects to soon officially be granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA.

“I just love it here,” Walker said of a university that the Orlando, Fla., product originally counted among her finalists out of high school before choosing Carolina. “I’m so thankful that I’m here now.”

Senior night

As part of Senior Night, Notre Dame will honor departing players Katie Cole and Marta Sniezek prior to Thursday’s game, with the recognition expected to start around 6:40.

Cole, a former walk-on who has become one of the most utilized such players in program history, will then make her first career start in her 53rd Irish appearance.

“I’m pretty excited,” Cole said Wednesday. “My whole family’s coming to town (Thursday), (including) my aunts and uncles. I’ll probably be nervous for the first tip, but as soon as I get into rhythm, my nerves will go away and it will be like any other game.”

The scrappy lefty from Toledo, Ohio, was awarded a scholarship before this season. Between transfers and injuries, she has become typically ND’s first or second player off the bench.

Back when she was still a seldom-used sophomore, though, Cole also played nine critical first-half minutes during the eventual 2018 national champs’ NCAA Tournament second-round win over Villanova due to Kat Westbeld being limited.

Cole hit a momentum-grabbing putback bucket just before the halftime horn for a 45-all count, and ND pulled away in the second half for a 98-72 victory.

She said it’s still her most memorable on-court moment.

“I was so nervous when I went in,” Cole recalled. “I would never have thought to even (be in that situation), but as soon as I went in, I kind of flushed out my nerves.”

Cole, who missed all of last season due to a knee injury, said she plans to attend graduate school next year before heading to medical school. Her goal is to become an orthopedic surgeon.

Sniezek, a grad transfer from Stanford who has a set a program record with 32 drawn charges in her only Irish season, said she hopes to play professionally overseas.

“I’m going to try,” Sniezek said over the weekend. “To be able to travel and continue playing, it’s something I’d love to do, and then either go back to school or start working. That’s kind of the five-year plan.”

Planting seeds

The Irish, currently 12th in the 15-school ACC standings, could still finish as high as ninth or as low as 13th based on their own results and those of other clubs. ND will cap its regular season Sunday with a visit to No. 19-ranked Florida State.

Teams will be seeded for next week’s ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., based on the regular-season standings, with tiebreakers invoked as necessary. A two-team tie will be broken based on head-to-head results, and ties of three or more teams based on cumulative head-to-head records among those teams.

If the Irish are seeded anywhere from 10th to 13th, they’ll play in Wednesday’s first round, joined by the 14th and 15th seeds.

If they can move up to No. 9, they’ll get a bye into Thursday and face the No. 8 seed. They’d still have to win four games in four days to take the title.

Notre Dame’s Destinee Walker (24) drives to the basket against Louisville Jan. 30 at Purcell Pavilion.
As a senior playing in her final home game, former walk-on Kaitlin Cole will be in Notre Dame’s starting lineup Thursday against North Carolina.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: North Carolina (16-11, 7-9 ACC) vs. Notre Dame (11-17, 6-10).

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

WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $25.

TV/WEB: ACC Network Extra.

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

NORTH CAROLINA VS. NOTRE DAME

NOTING: The Tar Heels have lost five straight since being on pace for their best ACC record in seven years. … Carolina top scorer Janelle Bailey missed the team’s last game, an 82-79 overtime loss Sunday at Wake Forest, with an undisclosed injury and will be “a game-time decision” for Thursday’s contest, according to school spokesperson Dana Gelin. Bailey, a 6-4 junior center, is averaging 14.9 points and 9.5 rebounds. She had started every game prior to Sunday. … Other Heel leaders include 6-2 senior guard Taylor Koenen (14.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 46-of-134 on 3s for 34.3%); redshirt senior guard Madinah Muhammad (12.9 ppg, 57-of-171 on 3s for 33.3%), who sat out last season after averaging 16.8 points the year before at Ole Miss; senior guard Shayla Bennett (12.8 ppg, 5.2 apg); and 6-3 freshman forward Malu Tshitenge (10.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg), who is shooting 59.7% from the field and has not attempted a 3-pointer. … Carolina is in its first season under Courtney Banghart, who went 254-103 with eight NCAA Tourney appearances over 12 years at Princeton and won Naismith National Coach of the Year honors in 2015 after the Tigers finished 31-1. … Irish leaders include ex-Heel Destinee Walker (14.7 ppg); Sam Brunelle (13.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), who is 34-of-94 from distance over her last 14 outings; Katlyn Gilbert (13.2 ppg, 2.0 spg); Mikki Vaughn (10.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg), coming off a career-high 21 points and the game-winning free throws in Sunday’s 72-70 victory over Syracuse; and Marta Sniezek (5.3 apg, 1.8 spg), who has coaxed a program-record 32 charging fouls this season.