“Accept what is, let go of what was, and have faith in what could be.”
That message on Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw’s Twitter account is meant to be inspirational after losing leading scorer, rebounder, shot blocker and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Brianna Turner to an ACL tear during Sunday night’s overtime win over Purdue.
That doesn’t mean McGraw isn’t human and remains unemotional about it.
Three years ago, her star center Natalie Achonwa tore her ACL in the Elite Eight late in the win versus Baylor that improved her team to 35-0. The Irish ended up losing in the national title game to UConn. Déjà vu reared its head on Sunday for the 32-3 Irish, who were blossoming in the last three weeks and moved up to No. 2 in the country.
“After going through this with Natalie Achonwa and now having to go through it again with Bri, it breaks your heart to see them in this point of the season when we’re just starting to peak, things are going really well,” McGraw said. “… That has to change pretty much everything that we have to do.”
Notre Dame will play No. 11 Ohio State in the Sweet 16 in the Lexington (Ky.) Region Friday night (7 p.m. ESPN).
An MRI on Monday revealed a torn ACL and a small tear in Turner’s lateral meniscus, but her MCL is intact. Surgery will be delayed so that Turner can heal some before the procedure. When asked if this will jeopardize Turner from playing her senior year in 2017-18, McGraw noted it was premature at this time to speculate.
“One step at a time,” McGraw said. “Have the surgery, see how it goes. It’s supposed to be a six-month rehab. We’ll see how she feels in six months. It’s completely up to her. We’ll talk about that with the doctor.”
Preparing For Ohio State
As for the here and now, it is about moving forward with unrelenting resilience.
“It doesn’t change our goals; it probably changes the odds a little bit,” McGraw said of challenging the UConn dynasty for the national title. “Certainly we still have great guard play, we still have really good players, lot of All-Americans, and have a team capable of getting that far.”
What increases the degree of difficulty is Notre Dame’s second best frontcourt player, junior Kathryn Westbeld, also has battled an ankle injury since mid-January that has her at about “60 percent,” per McGraw. Westbeld fouled out of the Purdue game.
The 6-2 Westbeld had prior experience at the five spot last year when Turner was recovering from a shoulder injury for a few weeks.
“I can get through it,” said Westbeld, who said surgery has never been discussed with her sprain. “I’m definitely not myself, a little slower than normal, I don’t have my vertical as much as I did, but I’m doing what I can.
“There are no words to describe how bad I feel for Brianna. I don’t think anyone can fill Bri’s shoes. Everyone just doing what they can do, just stepping up a little more.”
Freshman Erin Boley, also 6-2, will play some at the five to assist Westbeld, and she said guarding the posts on defense will be her greatest adjustment. Fortunately, her recent success, including 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the ACC Tournament championship game win over Duke and providing a huge second quarter spark in the win against Purdue, has boosted her confidence.
“Getting more comfortable out there helps me to play harder instead of thinking about where I need to be at the right time,” Boley said. “I’m able to just go out there and play hard, play smart.”
Senior Kristina Nelson, a 6-4 forward, has had her moments in spots in the post this year and will be utilized. Seldom used 6-5 senior Diamond Thompson also might be called on in a pinch after an illness sidelined her the first two NCAA Tournament games.
‘Everybody Has To Do More’
Point guard Lindsay Allen, one of 15 finalists for the Wooden National Player of the Year (which included Turner), said the Irish will spread the floor out more to create driving lanes for herself, sophomores Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale and freshman Jackie Young. The lethal quartet combined for 67 points versus Purdue.
She noted that after the initial shock and disappointment about Turner’s status, McGraw has been a rock at moving forward.
“She really gave us a clear plan of attack, what kind of team we’re going to be and what kind of style we’re going to play from now on without Bri,” Allen said. “We’re locked in, motivated and focused to make sure everyone is doing her role — but doing a little bit more.
“… Coach didn’t dwell on it and she didn’t want us to dwell on it.”
This isn’t Allen’s first rodeo either at losing the team’s star center. She started every game as the freshman point guard when Achonwa went down. Yet in the national semifinals, the Irish crushed Maryland 87-61 without Achonwa.
It was different in the Purdue game because the team went through a digesting process of life without Turner during the game. Notre Dame had a 16-point lead in the second half against the Boilermakers, but had to win in overtime because subconsciously Turner’s injury lingered.
“It was harder emotionally to recover from that because we had to go in at halftime and then come back out and still have that energy and emotional will power to play,” Allen admitted. “That was tougher for this team to recover from.”
McGraw is aiming for a galvanizing effect on the team like the one it had against Maryland in 2014.
“We’ll change the way we play, but we’re going to have to really work hard to rebound,” McGraw summarized. “Everybody has got to do a little bit more and so in that way everybody’s got to be on the same page. It’s going to be important that we don’t try to go off one-on-one, but that we use this as a team effort.
“Lindsay is probably the only one that doesn’t have to do more because, she already does so much. With everybody else it’s just get one more rebound, one more basket … we have to take more charges, we’ve got to be a little more intense defensively to contain the ball because we don’t have our shot blocker behind us.
“… The whole plan always has been to go to Bri, but it doesn’t change what we run. We can still run the same things, so we don’t have to do a lot of new things. Just score in different ways.”
Amidst the team setback, McGraw still maintained an upbeat spirit.
“We’ll be harder to guard on the perimeter now because everybody is a four, everybody can score,” she said. “They’re going to have to extend their defense, too.”
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