Notre Dame's Destinee Walker off to another hot start for the Irish

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — If you do the math, the answer comes out stunning.

Destinee Walker actually began playing high school basketball when some of her current Notre Dame teammates were just 7 years old. Given that she did start hooping at the high school level in seventh grade — as allowed in Florida — and given that she’s in her sixth collegiate season now, she could probably be excused if the game is beginning to feel even a wee-bit old to her.

But just forget about that possibility for the Irish guard, the one who’s leading the team in scoring for the second straight season.

Walker typically exudes joy on the court, and is openly intent on playing professionally once her Notre Dame career does end.

“I sat and watched a lot of games, so the joy is from being able to recover from those and to be able to play in an Irish uniform after having so much adversity from those injuries,” Walker said Wednesday afternoon as ND (1-1) prepared to host No. 24 Michigan (2-0) Thursday night. “I’m just happy to be on the floor, happy to be able to play with the group of teammates I have, and to play under Coach (Niele) Ivey, so that’s a lot of joy.”

Walker, 24, is in her second season at Notre Dame after transferring from North Carolina in May 2019. She arrived unsure if she’d be playing just one year at ND or if she might eventually be awarded a second year — and sixth overall — based on her exhaustive injury history.

The NCAA signed off on the grad student’s additional year late last winter.

Count the Irish thrilled.

“She means so much to this team,” Ivey said Wednesday, citing Walker’s seasoning and ND’s young roster collectively. “She brings so much experience. She’s a scorer, she’s athletic, but the experience part is the one I’m really leaning on her for. She knows one night I might need her to score like she did the last game (24 points), and then another night, I might need her just to be a defensive stopper. I’m really pleased with the way she’s been playing.”

Ivey, then a longtime Irish assistant, departed Notre Dame in August 2019 to become an assistant with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, before she and Walker could begin working together extensively, but she had nonetheless already played an active role in Walker’s recruitment — for a second time.

She also was involved when the Irish originally recruited Walker out of Orlando, before they ultimately landed eventual All-American Arike Ogunbowale, “so I was very familiar with her game and was developing that relationship with her back in high school.”

At Carolina, Walker missed the last third of her sophomore season and all of the next one in 2017-18 with a knee injury. Then right before the start of the 2018-19 season, she suffered a torn labrum in her hip and wound up appearing in just four games.

Finally healthy for virtually an entire season last winter, Walker paced ND at 14.5 points per game and was second in minutes at 35.4. This season, she’s at 20.0 points, 34.9 minutes and 3.5 assists, each leading the team, to go with 57% from the field and 87.5% at the line on 14-of-16.

“Destinee is definitely a mature player out there,” sophomore guard Anaya Peoples said Wednesday with a chuckle when asked whether the Irish razz Walker about her status as the program’s decisively oldest player.

“We can look to her for plays or what’s going on (defensively),” Peoples said more seriously. “She brings a calming factor for us. She definitely sticks out as the older one, just her vibes and just her presence on the court.”

Ironically, given that she is a transfer, Walker is ND’s active leader in career minutes played at the school. She’s at 1,168, just ahead of lately sidelined third-year player Katlyn Gilbert at 1,158 and lately sidelined sophomore Sam Brunelle at 1,050.

“It is ironic,” Walker said. “I didn’t know that.”

What she does know is that it’s on her to share the edge she has acquired in experience.

“I feel like this year I’ve definitely had to step into a lot more of a leadership role,” Walker said, adding that she now feels more comfortable doing so. “Having a year under me last year and with the plays and sets being similar, I’ve had to step up and be able to speak, especially to the freshmen a lot more, helping them with plays and sets and being ready for game time.”

While she wound up being particularly durable last season, Walker was still recovering from previous injuries when she first arrived on campus, thereby affecting her conditioning. This year, she arrived from a better starting point.

“Having last year under my belt in terms of stamina has helped a lot, too,” Walker said. “Last year, I kind of had to gradually work my way back into practice, whereas this year I was able to jump back in.”

Who might play

Without ruling anybody definitely out, Ivey said she’s been preparing for the Michigan game as if she’ll have “the same available players as I had Sunday” in an 88-68 win over Miami of Ohio. That means Brunelle, Gilbert, Mikayla Vaughn and Nat Marshall could all remain sidelined.

Ivey shared that Brunelle has practiced some during her recovery from a “nagging injury,” but has been mostly in and out of drills “the last couple weeks.”

“I haven’t had her for a full practice yet,” Ivey said, “so hopefully at some point she can do a little more, increase her volume in practice.”

Notre Dame’s Destinee Walker (24) goes up for a shot between Edyn Battle (10) and Amani Freeman (34) of Miami (Ohio) Sunday in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s Destinee Walker (24) looks to pass against Miami (Ohio) Sunday at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

WHO: No. 24 Michigan (2-0) vs. Notre Dame (1-1).

WHEN: Thursday, 6 p.m.

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame.


RADIO: WQLQ (99.9 FM).

NOTING: The Wolverines not only boast all five starters back from last season’s 21-11 club (10-8 Big Ten), but have gained the services of junior transfer Leigha Brown, who averaged 14.4 points at Nebraska. … Michigan’s led by Big Ten preseason co-player of the year Naz Hillmon. The 6-2 junior, a two-time all-league first-teamer, is averaging 30.5 points and 9.0 rebounds through two games with 27-of-37 field goal accuracy. ND coach Niele Ivey on Wednesday called Hillmon “a relentless worker” inside and “absolutely” the toughest matchup dilemma the Irish have faced to date. … Brown’s at 16.5 points, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and 13-of-20 from the field. … Hailey Brown is at 10.5 points and 3-of-6 on 3-pointers, Amy Dilk 9.0 points and 5.0 assists, and Maddie Nolan 7.5 boards and 5.0 points. … Akienreh Johnson (leg injury) has not played since scoring 11 points and grabbing six rebounds across 23 minutes in the Wolverines’ opener, a 93-75 win over Central Michigan. … Dilk (Carmel), who was Indiana’s 2018 Miss Basketball, Leigha Brown (DeKalb), Nolan (Zionsville) and Emily Kiser (Noblesville) will all be returning to their home state for UM. … Wolverine coach Kim Barnes Arico (177-96 in her ninth year at Michigan, 447-302 in her 25th overall) is 3-14 vs. the Irish, including 0-4 with UM and 3-10 while at St. John’s. … Visiting Notre Dame won last season’s meeting 76-72 for its fourth straight victory over Michigan and a 13-7 series lead all-time. The Irish have taken eight straight meetings at Purcell Pavilion, their only loss there coming in overtime in December 1979. … ND leaders through two games include Destinee Walker (20.0 ppg, 3.5 assists), Dara Mabrey (34 points in her Irish debut, scoreless in her second outing), Anaya Peoples (15.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 2.5 steals) and Maddy Westbeld (15.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg).

QUOTING: “This is going to be a huge challenge with a really great Big Ten opponent. They’re a physical team with a great inside presence and a great addition with the transfer of Brown from Nebraska, so this is a big test for us.” — Niele Ivey, Notre Dame coach.