Notre Dame Fighting Irish Women’s Basketball's Sam Brunelle Takes On Linchpin Role
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Notre Dame’s Sam Brunelle Takes On Linchpin Role

During its sensational run of seven Final Fours in nine years from 2011-19, highlighted by the 2018 national title, a common thread in the Notre Dame women’s basketball program was having at least one top-five-caliber recruit as “the face of the program.”

• It began with Skylar Diggins, signed in 2009 as ESPN HoopGurlz’s top point guard and No. 3 overall prospect nationally.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish sophomore forward Sam Brunelle
Brunelle had to take on a major role as a freshman after all five starters were lost from the season prior. (Mike Miller)

• In Diggins’ senior year, freshman Jewell Loyd, the No. 1 shooting guard and No. 4 overall player in the country, was groomed for the future superstar status.

• In 2014, Loyd’s junior season, Gatorade National High School Athlete of the Year and freshman Brianna Turner was deemed the heiress to the throne.

• The following year, Arike Ogunbowale — listed No. 5 overall per Prospects Nation — joined the fold.

• In 2016, guard Jackie Young was ranked No. 2 by Prospects Nation and named the prep Naismith Player of the Year, and the following year forward Jessica Shepard — ESPN HoopGurlz’s No. 3 overall prospect — transferred as a junior from Nebraska to Notre Dame.

The pattern was clear: To be a super power, a top-five or top-10 recruit needs to be inked almost every year. That’s not even including “complementary” Top-25 pieces who became standouts or premier leaders in their own right such as Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa, Lindsay Allen, Kathryn Westbeld or Marina Mabrey.

Unfortunately, the Notre Dame recruiting gravy train in the high school ranks slowed in 2017-18, and then Young joined the WNBA in 2019 prior to her senior year, while several other McDonald's All-Americans (Erin Boley, Ali Patberg and Danielle Patterson) transferred.

Also in 2019, 6-2 forward Sam Brunelle was originally ESPN HoopGurlz’s No. 1-ranked prospect, but dropped to No. 6 — and also No. 5 by Prospects Nation — after an injury sidelined the Ruckersville, Va., native a good portion of her senior season. She was still deemed the nation’s No. 1 “stretch forward” and perhaps best pure shooter.

Unlike her predecessors, however, Brunelle as a freshman did not have a veteran All-American in the program to lean on while she waded into the college basketball waters. Even Diggins as a freshman was able to turn to future No. 3 and No. 8 WNBA picks Devereaux Peters and Natalie Novosel to ease her transition.

There was no such bridge for Brunelle after all five starters from 2019 advanced to the WNBA. She was thrown into the deep end from the outset, hoping to just make it ashore.

The challenge was compounded when center Mikki Vaughn missed the first two months of the season with a knee injury. Shortly after Vaughn returned, Brunelle’s classmate Anaya Peoples — a double-figure scorer and the top rebounder with 8.1 boards per game — was sidelined for the remainder of the season after 17 games due to a shoulder injury.

Amidst a 13-18 finish, Brunelle did earn ACC All-Freshman honors with 13.9 scoring and 5.8 rebounding averages while playing all 31 games through an assortment of setbacks, and maintained an effervescent personality that will make her a prime national media figure in years to come.

“She’s one of the best shooting stretch forwards in the country,” first-year head coach Niele Ivey said when assessing her roster this year. “She came off a really good season. It was kind of a rebuild for the program, but I feel like she gained a lot of experience going through that.

“She has that confidence and swagger that we need, and she’s a born scorer. She’s comfortable in that position and role, and that’s what I expect from her.”

Because of her size and Vaughn’s injury, Brunelle had to be relied on more in new roles offensively and defensively in the post or in the middle of a zone defense that became psychological hurdles.

Her three-point shooting percentage in her first 14 games was 19.1 (13 of 68), but over the final 17 it doubled to 38.1 (45 of 118) — and was 46.5 (20 of 43) the last five.

She capped the regular season with a 23-point (9-of-14 shooting), nine-rebound effort in an 83-65 win versus North Carolina, and then in an upset at No. 19 Florida State tallied 25 points while converting seven threes. A day later she was named ESPNW’s National Player of the Week.

For Ivey, a prime personnel goal is to facilitate Brunelle’s skills.

“I would hope to get her on the perimeter a little more and hope to play her more at her natural position,” Ivey said. “We’re just trying to build the right team around her so we can do that.”

Practice is slated to begin Oct. 14, and this year ACC women's basketball will have a 20-game conference schedule that is currently getting formatted and could be released by the end of the month. Per a Notre Dame spokesman, four or five non-conference games also will be played, but mainly of the "bus trip" variety.



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