Women's basketball: Dara Mabrey on injuries and the still-fighting Irish

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
Notre Dame's Olivia Miles, left, and Dara Mabrey during the second half of a first-round college basketball game against Southern Utah in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

SOUTH BEND — Dara Mabrey was at times somber, often philosophical and at moments even cracking jokes as she met with media for the first time since her college career-ending injury 60 days earlier.

Yet, there was just one moment during all of those exchanges Thursday afternoon that tears welled in the eyes of the Notre Dame basketball grad-student guard — it wasn’t when she talked extensively about her own disheartening injury experience, but when asked about teammate Olivia Miles.

“It’s hard talking about Liv,” Mabrey said, pausing for a minute to collect herself.

More:Irish freshman guard KK Bransford looks to ace her continuing NCAA Tournament education

Miles, ND’s All-American sophomore guard, copy-catted Mabrey’s lead as unintentionally as copy-catting gets, when she suffered her own right knee injury almost four weeks ago.

“The day after it happened, I texted her, like, ‘Maybe God brought us back together for some reason,’” Mabrey said through a sniffle of Miles. “That is my partner, especially my emotional partner on the court. … I just knew there was some reason behind it. Maybe we just couldn’t be separated. Maybe throughout the last part of my journey here, she was meant to be with me.

“It sucks,” Mabrey continued. “It’s like literally the worst thing I could have ever thought to happen to the two of us, and our team and our program as a whole, but rehabbing with her has been so special. We can lean on each other. When I have to break scar tissue in my knee, she’s right there over my shoulder, encouraging me, just like she does on the court, so there’s way bigger reasons why this is happening.”

Minus Miles and minus Mabrey, the third-seeded and still-fighting Irish (27-5) face second seed Maryland (27-6) in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 matchup at 11:30 a.m. Saturday (ESPN).

Although a timetable’s not been firmed up and her surgery’s been delayed until at least next week so she can travel with the team, Miles is expected to be back in an ND uniform sometime next season.

January 22, 2023:  Notre Dame guard Dara Mabrey (1) drives to the basket as Virginia guard Yonta Vaughn (5) defends during NCAA Women's Basketball game action between the Virginia Cavaliers and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Indiana.  Mabrey was injured on the play.  Notre Dame defeated Virginia 76-54.  John Mersits/CSM.

For Mabrey, however, there is no college basketball tomorrow from a playing standpoint.

“Really, really hard,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said of digesting that Mabrey won’t play another collegiate game. “That was a really hard first week, and first 24 hours, for Dara, realizing this is it. You never know when your last moment is on the court.

“I was fortunate that my last moment was our last game,” said Ivey, who twice returned from major knee injuries to ultimately help ND to the 2001 national title, “so I don’t know what (Dara’s situation) feels like, but I do know, and she knows, she has a ton of support. She’s put her heart and soul into this game.”

After struggling at first to process her fate, Mabrey says she’s reached a level of peace.

“It’s weird. I’ve never been injured before and everything you hear about injuries, you don’t understand until it happens to you,” said Mabrey, who started every one of the first 135 games in her college career over two years at Virginia Tech and three with the Irish. “So there’s like stages. I did grieve for like a solid three weeks, but once you can get past that, it’s like the acceptance stage, and then you just find so much peace with where you’re at.

“When I got injured,” Mabey recalled, “it was really hard to understand why it was happening. I could say, ‘Oh, my God, it was senior year. Oh, my God, this and that, my dream (is over),’ but I’ve learned you can’t do that. One day, I’m going to find out why this happened. It might be 10 years from now, but I’m so at peace. … I’m just excited for what’s next.”

Even if she’s not sure what that is.

Mabrey is entered in the WNBA draft, but wasn’t a slam-dunk to make the league even before her injury, and that injury has brought complications.

Men's basketball:Notre Dame secures its next head coach in Penn State's Micah Shrewsberry

Besides suffering an anterior cruciate ligament avulsion in her right knee, she sustained a tibial plateau fracture — a break of the larger lower leg bone that breaks into the knee joint — on the same Jan. 22 play against Virginia, when she made an open-court steal and went down while driving for a layup less than two minutes into the game. A foul was called on a Cavalier player, though the contact didn’t appear related to the injury.

Mabrey estimates that she’s still “a couple weeks” from surgery, a timeline that was stretched by virtue of blood clots forming in connection with her injuries.

“I could actually write a book about that, because I know everything about the human body now,” Mabrey kidded concerning how much she’s asked questions and soaked in answers. “(Blood clots mean) a standard three months on blood thinners.”

Owner of 10.9 career scoring average and 301 3-pointers, the most by anybody ever to spend at least a part of her career in an ND uniform, Mabrey says she’s trying to maintain her usual mantra of “being where my feet are.”

“There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Oh, my God, what’s gonna happen, I might have to find something else (besides playing),’” Mabrey said of her future, “but then there’s part of me that’s like, ‘I have two months of college left and I want to enjoy myself.’”

FILE - Notre Dame guard Olivia Miles (5) is fouled by Pittsburgh guard Emy Hayford (4) during the second half of an NCCA college basketball game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023. Notre Dame point guard Olivia Miles will miss the remainder of the season with an undisclosed injury to her right knee. Miles suffered the injury in a 68-65 win over Louisville in the regular-season finale and sat out the ACC Tournament. (AP Photo/Matt Freed, File)

She says she’s enjoyed her team’s push through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tourney even if that’s come without Miles and herself on the floor, adding that “I’m going to do whatever I can to help this team win.”

Ivey has heaped praise upon both Mabrey and Miles for the energy and input they’ve been able to add from the sideline, calling them “my little coaches.”

Mabrey’s sister, Michaela, is an actual ND assistant. Dara says she’s acquired a deeper appreciation of what all the coaches do, as well as tolerate.

“I understand now why they wanted to pull my hair out sometimes,” Mabrey said. “You see it from a coach’s perspective and it humbles you a little bit. Sometimes, watching people make the same mistakes over and over again is very frustrating, but that’s also helped me in delivering messages to my teammates. Not everybody can be approached the same way.”

Maybe “I really could do this coaching thing,” Mabrey said of her future options. “Looking up to my sister, it’s different now. Instead of yelling at me, she’ll call me over and be like, ‘What do you see?’ and I’m like, this is pretty cool. I think I could do this.”

Notre Dame’s feistiest player over the last few seasons says she’s changed.

“Little things that used to tick me off just never tick me off,” Mabrey insisted.

She says she’s come to some other realizations rooted in her injury as well.

“It teaches you to be grateful for everything,” Mabrey said. “Like, people take walking every day for granted. It’s taught me to find peace with myself. … You really have to learn to just be where you’re at. I was on bed rest for a long time because of what happened in my leg and all the complications after it, but you just have to accept it is what it is. Once you do that, it’s a lot easier to rehab. You learn to celebrate mini goals, like being able to put weight on your foot, or just using that extra pound on the ankle weights.”

Maryland matchup

The Irish lost the regular-season meeting to the Terrapins — 74-72 on Diamond Miller’s 15-foot buzzer beater Dec. 1 at Notre Dame — they’re the lower seed and now they’re without two of their key players in that previous meeting.

“We have no pressure on us,” Ivey said. “No one was looking for us to be where we are right now, and that’s fine. I think it’s exciting. I like being the underdog.”

More:NCAA Tournament: Four things to know about Notre Dame's Sweet 16 opponent Maryland

Slowing Miller in the rematch may be paramount after the 6-foot-3 All-American struck for 31 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three blocks at ND, each of those figures being team highs and all but the assists being game highs.

“She’s phenomenal, so we have a lot of game plans,” Ivey said. “I got A, B and C; we always have backup plans.”

Sonia Citron led Notre Dame in the first meeting with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Miles and Mabrey combined for 21 points and nine assists.

More:Former South Bend Washington star Mila Reynolds set for hoops homecoming vs. Notre Dame

Miller (19.7), fellow senior guard Abby Meyers (14.4) and 6-2 sophomore guard Shyanne Sellers (13.8) are averaging a combined 47.9 points, and the Terps’ other weapons help bring the count to 79.4, ninth in the nation.

Taking the ball away is likewise a Maryland strength, an area in which ND’s been vulnerable, especially post-Miles, while rebounding appears to favor the Irish, though the Terps won the board battle 41-37 in the previous meeting.

Maryland’s turning its opponents over 19.5 times per game, 24th in the nation, including making 10.4 steals, good for 16th-best, while committing 13.5 turnovers of its own, 44th-fewest.

The Irish average 15.5 cough-ups to rank 169th in the country among 361 Division I teams. They turn their opponents over at 15.0 clip, which is 212th.

Maryland guard Diamond Miller (1) reacts after she made a basket in the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament against Holy Cross, Friday, March 17, 2023, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

On the glass, though, ND owns an elite 57.1% rebounding rate, fifth in the nation, while the Terps are at 49.5, just 202nd.

“Gonna try to utilize that,” Ivey said of her team’s rebounding ability. “We’re (playing) three bigs at times, and hopefully, we get a chance to utilize that.”

In the bottom-line, tempo-free numbers, the Irish stack up well. They’re 31st in points per possession, 16th defensively and 10th in per-possession margin.

Maryland’s 22nd, 140th and 38th.

The Terps are 19th-quickest in pace of play and ND 110th.

The Irish and Maryland have met twice before during the NCAA Tournament — with Notre Dame ruling both contests.

In 2012, ND won 80-49 in a No. 4 vs. No. 5-ranked Elite Eight matchup in Raleigh, N.C., and in 2014, the Irish prevailed 87-61 at a national semifinal in Nashville, Tenn. ND was ranked No. 2 and the Terps 11th.