Notre Dame women ready to press through pandemic, set to open ACC play

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Mike Krzyzewski’s voice might be the most powerful one in college basketball, but the Duke coach’s call this week for the NCAA to “reassess” whether games should be played amid the pandemic has been met with widespread resistance.

Within the Notre Dame women’s program, his points aren’t being met with direct replies, but they are being greeted with unflinching confidence in pressing onward.

“I definitely feel safe,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said Friday afternoon when asked about those who do want to reassess.

“I feel that we have had an incredible playbook and blueprint for returning to play here,” Ivey said, “so I credit (director of athletics) Jack Swarbrick. I credit our medical team. They have presented a very safe space for us here. We’ve created this little Notre Dame bubble.”

The Irish (2-2) open the Atlantic Coast Conference portion of their season Sunday afternoon by hosting Georgia Tech (3-1, 1-0).

Ivey reminded that the protocols in place for Notre Dame are also protocols for the opposition.

Otherwise, they don’t work.

“If we feel our opponents are not abiding by our rules that have kept us safe this entire time we have been back on campus, then we won’t play,” Ivey said.

Sophomore forward Sam Brunelle said she “absolutely” wants the season to continue.

“I’m just focused on playing basketball,” Brunelle said. “Besides getting a good degree from Notre Dame, that’s what I’m here to do is play basketball.”

Brunelle said her sentiment is the prevailing one along the roster.

“I can’t speak for all my teammates, but I’m sure they’re on a very similar page with that,” Brunelle said. “I think we have a lot of trust in our medical staff and our coaches. Everybody is trying their best to be sure we are in the safest environment possible. (COVID’s) obviously a scary thing. However, we know that there are a lot of people in the background who are doing a lot to keep us safe, so very happy about that.”

Ivey praised the continued vigilance of her club.

“I think our team is resilient, I think that they’ve sacrificed a lot,” Ivey said. “I think my assistant coaches, my staff have sacrificed a lot to be able to perform, to be able to actually be coaching and to be playing. I knew coming in that it was going to be a very hard challenge and we were going to have to navigate through a lot of different protocols, but I definitely feel safe, and I know that my staff and team are doing our best to follow the guidelines.”

Ivey said she’s aware “cases are rising” and added that “I understand the concern of everybody” who may want the season stopped, “but I’m going with the guidelines of our administration and what’s best for our team.”

ACC numbers game

Until last season’s tumble from its place among the elite in women’s basketball, Notre Dame never had to concern itself with how many Atlantic Coast Conference games it had to win to make the NCAA Tournament.

It was more about whether they would win them all, or if they’d suffer an ultra-rare hiccup that would keep them from a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Now the Irish, at merely 2-2 in their pre-league games this season and coming off a sub-.500 ACC finish last season, may have to be more conscious of win totals and cut-off points.

Then again, maybe not.

“Yeah, I’m not looking at that kind of picture,” Ivey said. “I’m on a day-to-day basis as far as just learning. I just want to get better and I’m focusing on the next opponent. That’s my focus, that’s my philosophy and will always be my philosophy.”

Over their first six years in ACC play, the Irish roared to a 91-5 regular-season league mark with outright or shared regular-season titles all six years, as well as ACC Tournament crowns in five of those six.

Then last season, they went 8-10 to tie for ninth place in the 15-team standings, and were stunned in the opening round of the league tourney by last-place Pittsburgh.

This season, the ACC has expanded to 20 regular-season league games.

Notre Dame was picked to finish sixth by the coaches and fourth by a media panel.

During ND’s time in the ACC, the highly regarded league has averaged a nation-leading 7.3 teams making the NCAA Tournament (last season is excluded because the field was never named before the postseason was canceled).

More specifically, everybody who’s gone 11-5 or better has made it; nine of the 10 teams that have gone 10-6 have made it and all three clubs that finished 9-7 have made it.

Being .500 has generally landed a team on the other side of that bubble. Just two of the five 8-8 clubs have made the NCAA Tourney and just one of the six 7-9 teams.

For now, the Irish have in mind that it won’t be about a close call anyway.

“I’m not sure of the exact number of games we have to win,” Brunelle said, “but we’re just focused on winning every game we can and just being Notre Dame basketball.”

Injury updates

Mikayla Vaughn has been “full go” in practice this week, according to Ivey, though the coach was noncommittal on whether that means the senior center will make her season debut Sunday.

“Kind of day to day,” Ivey said Friday. “Kind of waiting on the medical team to let me know where she’s at.”

Vaughn — who averaged 10.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and team-leading figures of 1.6 blocks and 58.4% field goal shooting — underwent surgery on her right knee shortly after last season.

“She’s had a really great week,” Ivey said, before adding that Vaughn is “still limited.”

“I’m hopeful that the next couple games I can have her back,” Ivey said, “but I’m very happy with where she is right now. She’s very strong and trying to work her way back. Gonna be kind of a game-to-game situation for her.”

Notre Dame started this season with five players unavailable for largely unspecified reasons in Vaughn, Brunelle, Katlyn Gilbert, Nat Marshall and Amirah Abdur-Rahim. The Irish lost 86-85 to Ohio.

Abdur-Rahim appeared in the next game, an 88-68 win over Miami of Ohio.

Brunelle and Gilbert, both ACC all-freshman team picks last season, made their season debuts in a 76-66 loss to No. 24 Michigan and came off the bench again in last Sunday’s 65-58 win over IUPUI.

Brunelle cited “lingering” knee injuries and a “little stress injury with my foot that sidelined me again right before the season” as the reasons she missed the opening two games.

“I’ve got those all out of the way now,” said Brunelle, who scored 11 points in 22 minutes against IUPUI. “They’re solved and I’m just focusing on moving forward.”

Notre Dame’s Sam Brunelle shoots against Michigan Dec. 3 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. Brunelle says she is recovered from some knee and foot issues that kept her sidelined for two games.

WHO: Georgia Tech (3-1, 1-0 ACC) at Notre Dame (2-2, 0-0).

WHEN: Sunday, 2 p.m.

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame.


RADIO: WQLQ (99.9 FM).


NOTING: Tech, which will be playing its first road game, enters at 3-1, its lone loss coming in overtime against rival Georgia (5-0). … The Yellow Jackets are coming off an 86-68 beating of Boston College (4-1, 0-1) Thursday in their ACC opener, a game they led 74-45 through three quarters. Junior guard Lotta Maj-Lahtinen from Finland dazzled with 27 points, eight steals, seven rebounds and five assists, hitting 5-of-8 shots outside the arc. The steals were the most by any Jacket in over eight years. … On the season, 6-4 senior center Lorela Cubaj is pacing Tech at 15.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. Maj-Lahtinen is averaging 13.5 points, freshman guard Loyal McQueen 11.8 points and junior guard Sarah Bates 8.5 points to go with 10-of-27 on 3-pointers. … Irish leaders include Maddy Westbeld (17.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg), who is coming off ACC Freshman of the Week honors, Anaya Peoples (14.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.3 steals), Destinee Walker (13.8 ppg) and Dara Mabrey (12.0 ppg, 3.3 assists). … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 13-0, winning last season’s lone meeting 59-51 in Atlanta. … With the unbalanced schedule the ACC has set for this season, the Irish and Jackets will meet twice with both games in South Bend. The second matchup is slated for Jan. 3.

QUOTING: “Of course I wanted to be 4 and 0, but I feel like it was a great couple weeks to see where I’m at with the team. I learned a lot, I think the team learned a lot. … Now I’m very excited to feel like I’ve added more pieces. I think we’re a work in progress. I think we’re going to continue to grow each game.” — Niele Ivey, Notre Dame coach, on the 2-2 start heading into the ACC opener.