'She's a difference maker.' Transfer Kylee Watson welcomed to Notre Dame with open arms

Anthony Anderson
Notre Dame junior forward Kylee Watson grabs a rebound Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, at practice in Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Kylee Watson claims of her parents’ athletic backgrounds, “I didn’t really have a choice on whether to play sports or not growing up,” but she claims it with a wide smile and adds that “it’s been awesome.”

The 6-foot-4 junior forward and former McDonald’s All-American did, however, have some choices for her next women’s college basketball stop. She made her decision in April, and this time chose Notre Dame after also having a flirtation with the Irish and coach Niele Ivey coming out of high school.

All parties sound ecstatic over the new alliance as Watson joins an ND roster already brimming with both credentials and promise after going 24-9 last season on the way to the Sweet 16 and returning four starters this season.

“I wanted to go somewhere where I knew the coaches coming out of high school, that I already had a relationship with them,” Watson said this week of why she opted to transfer from Oregon to Notre Dame.

“I also played AAU basketball with (Irish point guard and fellow New Jersey product) Liv Miles, and a few of the girls are from the Northeast, like New York, New Jersey, so I really felt comfortable in my visit,” Watson said. “I really just thought Coach Ivey and all the staff would help me get to where I needed to be on the basketball court also.”

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Where Watson, the oldest of three siblings, has gotten to already has been assisted in part by her parents.

Her father, Tim Watson, played college football as a defensive tackle at Maryland and at Rowan (Glassboro, N.J.), then was a sixth-round NFL draft pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2000.

His career was cut short by a knee injury, but he later coached Cedar Creek High in Egg Harbor City, N.J., to a 71-27 record with a bevy of titles over the program’s first nine years of existence while producing more than two-dozen college players.

Tore Dame junior forward Kylee Watson defends junior guard Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, at practice in Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

Watson’s mom, the former Courtney Neall, was a four-year college basketball player and senior captain at Delaware, spanning 1993-97, then later an assistant at Linwood’s Mainland High, where Kylee played.

“I use their tips because they’ve lived through it,” Watson said of her parents’ input, adding that her dad, “having him as a coach, he would always talk to me a lot about the mental side of things and how importantly that plays a role. That’s something I’ve been working on, just visualizing, just confidence-wise.”

Watson, ranked the nation’s No. 17 player in her class coming out of high school by ESPN, hardly posted big numbers last winter for the 20-12 Ducks — 3.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in 16.4 minutes, albeit while appearing in every game and shooting a team-best 54.8% from the field — but it was also just her sophomore year, and she still has three seasons of eligibility now.

Count Ivey among those stoked by Watson’s arrival regardless of stats.

“She’s a difference maker,” Ivey promised. “She’s exciting. Her explosiveness, she kind of brings what we lost with Maya (Dodson, the team’s lone departed starter) with her athleticism and ability to run the floor.”

Notre Dame junior forward Kylee Watson speaks to sports writers Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, at basketball practice in Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

Miles, second in the nation in assists last season on her way to All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors, is eager about the reunion with her former AAU mate.

“Her footwork is amazing,” Miles said of Watson, “and you’ll see that throughout the course of the season. She’s just very smart IQ-wise. She knows her spots, she knows what she’s good at. She’s learning the system, so I haven’t seen her in full force yet, but she is an amazing, all-around, intelligent player.”

Sounding a bit like a broken record, Miles, Ivey and ND guard Sonia Citron all referenced Watson’s “great motor” this week.

So what’s the forward’s take on what that even means?

“I always try to do things that I can control, and I think ‘motor’ has a lot to do with just doing little things and always bringing energy,” Watson said, “because even if I’m not hitting shots, or not having a great game, I can always bring that.”

More inside upside

Besides Watson, the Irish also added a far more seasoned transfer in 6-4 center and fifth-year player Lauren Ebo, who averaged 8.0 points and a team-leading 6.7 rebounds last winter for Elite Eight club Texas.

Further, 6-3 starting forward Maddy Westbeld (11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds) returns, while 6-5 fellow junior Nat Marshall is now healthy after missing much of last season due to knee issues.

Notre Dame center Lauren Ebo, center, tries to block a shot from junior guard Sarah Cernugal Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, at practice in Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

Collectively, if they all remain healthy, the four players give the Irish depth on the inside that appears to transcend what ND offered last winter.

“They’re all very different, so I’ve tried to work different lineups with them,” Ivey said, “and it’s really exciting to see such different layers with our frontcourt.”

Similar to the case being made for Watson, Ivey’s been effusive in her praise so far of her other interior newcomer in Ebo, even saying “I haven’t seen a post with such great hands since Ruth Riley (the national player of the year for ND in 2001).”

“She’s a pure center,” Ivey said of Ebo. “A true back-to-the-basket 5, something we haven’t had in awhile. She’s smart and efficient and a good scorer. She hasn’t had to pass much in the past, but she’s really picked up the offense quickly and is working on her reads. She’s gone to the Elite Eight and had a vital role, and her leadership will really help us.”

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While Ebo, whom Watson calls “really strong,” is that pure 5 — and the versatile Westbeld can certainly handle 4 or 5 — Watson says she’s fine with 4 or 5 as well, and is fired up about the various possibilities based on workouts.

“When Maddy and I are in together, it’s kind of an interchangeable thing,” Watson said, “and I love being the 4 when Ebo’s in. I can just go to work, but even at 5, I feel like I’m usually a bit more athletic (than whoever would be guarding her).”

The bottom line, according to Watson, “just getting out and running and having the guards that we have, it’s easy points every time, just because of the way they can pass it.”

Irish item

Notre Dame will host a practice open to the public from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21. It will be followed by an autograph session.

A practice for season ticket members only is set for 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 26.