Notre Dame's future bright with Brunelle and Gilbert elevating game

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Both with their hair up, both walking toward interviews at the same time after a pre-practice film session and both still carrying smiles reflective of a gratifying win two days earlier, Sam Brunelle and Katlyn Gilbert looked all matchy-matchy Saturday.

More impactfully to their team, though, the two Notre Dame women’s basketball freshmen looked all matchy-matchy Thursday night against North Carolina.

Strikingly matchy-matchy, and in a good way.

Gilbert scored 24 points, one off her career high, and tied a career high with eight rebounds during the 83-65 victory over the visiting Tar Heels. Brunelle netted 23 points and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds. Each played 32 minutes.

“I think when we’re both on, it’s dangerous,” Brunelle said, “so you better watch out if we both are. Hopefully, we can keep it going this weekend.”

The Irish (12-17, 7-10) close their regular season Sunday by visiting No. 19-ranked Florida State (22-6, 11-6) for a 2 p.m. tip. Each team’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament seeding position remains to be finalized.

If Brunelle at forward and Gilbert at guard can continue to shine at the same time, it’ll be a boon for the Irish.

It’ll also be something more rare than they might’ve envisioned before the season.

There have been shimmering moments for each player — each is a leading candidate for the All-ACC freshman team to be announced this coming week, Gilbert as a redshirt freshman — but there also have been growing pains.

“I think it’s been a little up and down for most of the year,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday, “but having them both knowing they can play well together, it gives us a huge lift.”

Similar to Thursday’s effort, Brunelle and Gilbert have been matchy-matchy on the season, averaging 13.7 and 13.6 points, respectively, to rank second and third behind Destinee Walker’s 14.7. They’re also at nearly identical minutes played at 33.6 and 33.5.

Yet, until Thursday, they hadn’t starred in the same game too often.

Brunelle hit 9-of-14 field goals, including a pair of treys, and Gilbert 10-of-21, marking the first time that both players finished over 40% in the same contest — let alone one over 60 and the other around 50 — since a Dec. 4 loss to Minnesota 19 outings earlier.

Further, their 47 combined points matched their output against DePaul for season best. Their next-best combined figure is 38.

A lack of shared great games has not been for a lack of enjoying playing together — far from it, according to them — but from finding the consistency that all ND players have been chasing this season.

“I love her confidence,” Gilbert said Saturday of Brunelle. “She’ll keep shooting, and the way she gets so hyped out there, that always turns me up, and we always look at each other and fist bump or something, but just her energy and her confidence in her play, I love that.”

The admiration runs mutual.

“I admire and appreciate so much with Kate what she brings to this team with her leadership and aggression,” Brunelle said. “She wants to win, she wants to get in passing lanes and she’s just so tough to guard, so I appreciate all of that about her.”

McGraw says the trio in particular of Brunelle, Gilbert and Walker all playing well at the same time would make the Irish “really hard to beat,” but getting that has been hard to find.

For example, during Walker’s recent run of three straight games of 20-plus points, Brunelle went just 10-of-35 from the field and Gilbert 17-of-46.

“Not very often,” McGraw said of how frequently any three players on the team have played exceptionally well for ND on the same day, “but there’s also been a lot of games we’ve won when only one or two have played well — well, not a lot, because we haven’t won that many — but there’s been games where we’ve shown that they don’t have to feel that pressure on them to all play well. I don’t think we have to have that, but certainly, the more, the better.”

Seminoles and seeds

A victory over Florida State would qualify as ND’s signature win of the season based on the bodies of work compiled by all opponents to date.

The Irish are 0-5 against currently ranked teams, although they did beat both Michigan and South Florida when those clubs were each rated early in the season.

“It’s obviously going to be a difficult game,” McGraw said. “It’s their senior day, and they have a lot of good seniors, and they’re also playing for third or fourth place, so it’s a huge game for them, as well as a huge game for us. We’ll definitely need to go in with a great mindset.”

The Seminoles are tied for third in the ACC with Duke and Virginia Tech. One of those three teams will lose out on the coveted double byes that come with being a top-four seed in next week’s ACC Tourney at Greensboro, N.C.

ND’s also in a position to possibly move up or down in the 15-school ACC standings, but has little control over its own destiny as far as seedings go, and is already locked out of the No. 9 slot that would’ve earned the Irish a one-round bye.

If Notre Dame beats FSU and is able to finish tied for ninth place with Virginia (8-9 heading into Sunday’s home game against No. 8 North Carolina State), the Cavaliers still get the ninth seed by virtue of their win over the Irish.

If ND, Virginia and North Carolina (7-10 heading into Sunday’s home game against Duke) all go 8-10, then Carolina (which went 2-0 against the Cavs) gets the ninth seed by virtue of the best record in games involving all three teams. ND would land at 10 and the Cavs at 11.

Meanwhile, as many as four teams could finish 7-11 in the Irish, Carolina, Miami (6-11 pending its game against last-place Pittsburgh) and Wake Forest (already done).

ND, by virtue of going 1-0 against each of those other clubs, would own the 10th-seed tiebreaker in all possible combinations of multiple 7-11 finishers.

The only way the Irish slip to the 11th seed is if they lose to Florida State and Carolina beats Duke.

No matter what, ND will have to win five games in five days to win the ACC Tourney that begins Wednesday. As a No. 10 seed, the Irish would play No. 15 seed Pittsburgh at 3:30 p.m.; as a No. 11 seed, they’d play No. 14 seed Clemson at 6:30.

No. 5 Louisville (15-2) has clinched the regular-season crown and N.C. State (13-4) already has wrapped up second place.

Notre Dame’s Katlyn Gilbert (10) drives against North Carolina’s Malu Tshitenge (21) during last Thursday’s game in South Bend.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Notre Dame (12-17, 7-10 ACC) vs. No. 19 Florida State (22-6, 11-6).

WHERE: Donald L. Tucker Center (11,500), Tallahassee, Fla.

WHEN: Sunday, 2 p.m.

TV: ACC Network.

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

NOTRE DAME AT FLORIDA STATE

NOTING: The Irish can match a season high with their third straight win. It would also be their third straight over a team that entered the game ahead of them in the ACC standings. ... The Seminoles are powered by a trio of seniors in 5-9 guard Nicki Ekhomu (15.3 points per game, 4.8 assists, 50.7% net field goal shooting, including 41 3-pointers), 6-2 forward Kiah Gillespie (15.3 ppg, 8.8 rebounds, 49.3% net FG shooting) and 5-9 guard Nausia Woolfolk (13.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg). Five other players average 4.5 to 6.2 points each, including 6-5 freshman center River Baldwin (6.1 ppg, 58.7% on 2s) and 6-1 freshman swing Sammie Puisis (43-of-106 on 3s for 40.6%). ... Irish leaders include Destinee Walker (14.7 ppg), Sam Brunelle (13.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Katlyn Gilbert (13.6 ppg, 2.0 steals), Mikki Vaughn (10.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 59.1% field goals) and Marta Sniezek (5.6 apg, 4.5 ppg), coming off a career-high 14 assists in Thursday’s victory over North Carolina. ... Florida State is plus-7.4 in rebounding margin per game to rank 28th in the country of 349 Division I teams, while ND is minus-5.7 to rank 312th. ... Notre Dame leads the all-time series over the Seminoles 9-0 (all of the games since joining the ACC), although the Irish have already lost this season to Clemson for the first time ever, and have lost for the first time within their ACC tenure to Boston College, Duke, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech.