So, the football team is 12-0, which is awesome. But don’t forget that a new season has begun for the reigning national champions (writing that will never get old) – the women’s basketball team. They had a busy, celebratory offseason that included (among other things) a trip to the ESPYs, a European tour, appearances by Final Four hero Arike Ogunbowale on Ellen and Dancing with the Stars, and impressive performances by the six Irish alums who played in the WNBA this summer. Now Muffet McGraw and her team are back in action, so let’s take a quick look at the season so far and what we can expect going forward.
Missing Faces, New Faces
The Irish graduated four players after last season: Mychal Johnson, Kristina Nelson, Lili Thompson, and Kathryn Westbeld. Johnson missed all of last season and Thompson missed most of it as casualties of the ACL epidemic that plagued the team, but Nelson and especially Westbeld both played important roles on the championship team. Their leadership is something the team will be looking to replace this year.
Several new faces will be appearing for the Irish this season. A talented four-member freshman class is likely to see substantial playing time this season. Two of the freshmen have already collected their first starts – Jordan Nixon started in place of an injured Marina Mabrey for several early games, and Abby Prohaska started in one game when Jessica Shepard sat out with a sore ankle. Katlyn Gilbert and Danielle Cosgrove are also getting in-game experience.
While they aren’t new to the team, Brianna Turner and Mikayla Vaughn returned to the court this year after missing all (Turner) or most (Vaughn) of last season with… of course… ACL injuries. Turner is back in the starting lineup.
Season So Far
The Irish are off to a 6-0 start this season. In addition to an exhibition win over Lewis, the Irish picked up comfortable wins over Harvard and Penn. On November 17th, #1 ND visited #15 DePaul for what tends to be a challenging game. DePaul is well-coached and they played a tough game. ND struggled with turnovers early as they tried to figure out how to work through DePaul’s speed and tight defense. The Irish were able to pull away in the second half and used an impressive rebounding effort (48-23) and strong performance in the paint to beat the Blue Demons 101-77.
Next they traveled to Canada to spend Thanksgiving weekend competing in the Vancouver Showcase. The Irish collected double-digit wins against Gonzaga and Drake in the first two rounds to earn a spot in the final game against #9 Oregon State. This game featured the season debut of Marina Mabrey, who had been out with a lingering quad injury up to that point. The Beavers gave the Irish a run for their money, getting out to a quick start and not letting up. Oregon State led by as many as 14 points in the second quarter before the Irish began to chip away. ND took their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter on a Jessica Shepard layup, and they eventually pulled away to the 10-point win. Once again, the Irish comfortably outscored their opponent in the paint (by 20 points, in this instance), but they did not get any scoring from the bench players.
Side note: When I first saw the picture of the Vancouver Showcase champions below, I thought they were pretending to hold an invisible trophy. Then I realized they actually received a glass plate for winning the tournament. Doesn’t make for great pictures.
— Notre Dame WBB (@ndwbb) November 25, 2018
With four of the five starters from the national championship team returning this year and the addition of Turner in the fifth spot as well as a deeper bench, I think many of us expect the Irish to put together another outstanding season. However, as the first six games of the season have indicated, there will still be a learning curve for this group. A lot of their early struggles can be attributed to a lack of experience playing together. With Mabrey out the first five games, a true freshman was playing point guard much of the time. Additionally, while Turner obviously isn’t a newcomer, her last game before this season was in March of 2017. She’s playing well, but it will still take time for everyone to get used to having her on the court.
It’s also interesting to consider that the Irish might actually be adjusting to having so many players available. The substitution options last season were limited given the injury situation, so you generally had the same few players on the court. Now they have to figure out how to play in different configurations. The coaches have to work out what groups they like together, and in what situations. Those things will take a little time, but when it all starts to click this team has incredible potential. A few quick thoughts:
- It is going to be so fun to watch Turner and Shepard play together this year. They both benefit from having the other on the court, and should be able to keep dominating teams in the paint.
- All three of the walk-ons who joined the team last year after all of the injuries are back on the roster this year, but Kaitlin Cole, who saw the most playing time of the three, had knee surgery and will be out for the year. She has still been on the bench with the team during games.
- McGraw has described Danielle Patterson as the team’s most improved player during the offseason, and she has definitely shown it in games so far. Highlighted by a career-high 14 points and 3 blocks against DePaul, her season is off to a good start.
- Jackie Young had made a big leap between her freshman and sophomore years, and it looks like she’s done so again coming into her junior year. Young has been excellent early this season, at times carrying the team when others were struggling. Her increased confidence and scoring output will give opponents another thing to worry about when playing ND.
- It probably goes without saying at this point, but Ogunbowale is still really good and very exciting to watch.
Burger Basket Leaderboard
Just for fun, I’m bringing this back again this season. When the team scores 88 points or more at home, the fans in attendance get coupons for free burgers. I’ll track which player is responsible for feeding the fans most often during the season. You may recall last year’s contest ended in a tie: Marina Mabrey and Kristina Nelson each scored the 88th point twice during the season.
This season, Jackie Young kicked things off with a layup early in the fourth quarter of the Irish’s season opener against Harvard to make the score 88-45 en route to the 103-58 final. She’s the only one on the leaderboard so far:
Jackie Young – 1
Thursday 11/29 – 7pm – #1 ND vs. #14 Iowa – ESPN2
Sunday 12/2 – 4pm – #1 ND vs. #2 UConn – ESPN
This week will provide a pair of tests for this team. Tonight the Irish will host #14 Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 4-1 and coming off a close loss to Florida State. Sunday will feature one of the season’s marquee games – the Irish will host #2 UConn in the Jimmy V Classic. The Huskies will certainly be looking to get revenge for their loss to ND in the Final Four and to claim the #1 ranking. Both teams have had some close games as they settle into the new season. As we’ve seen in past years, both are also likely to improve significantly by the time they could potentially meet again in the NCAA Tournament. This early season meeting doesn’t have high stakes beyond the bragging rights (okay, these are pretty important) but it provides a good benchmark. Both of this week’s games will be televised, so be sure to tune in and get your ND sports fix during the long football break.