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Notre Dame Women's Basketball Prepares To Embark On New Journey

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Notre Dame will be favored to repeat as national champions in 2018-19.
Notre Dame will be favored to repeat as national champions in 2018-19. (Aaron Roster/USA TODAY Sports)

The 2017‑18 Notre Dame national champions had an epic journey. Now it’s time for more travel this summer in an attempt to become even better in 2018‑19.

Head coach Muffet McGraw and the Fighting Irish are allowed 10 practice days before embarking to Europe from July 31 to Aug. 9 in an exhibition tour allowed once every four years by the NCAA. The Irish will spend three days in Rome, Italy, three more in Split, Croatia, and the final three in Dubrovnik, Croatia, before returning.

The trip to Europe actually was supposed to occur last summer, but had to be cancelled because there weren’t enough healthy bodies to make it worthwhile and productive. Both senior starting forwards, All-American Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld, were sidelined with injuries — which would result in a medical redshirt for Turner — and several others were nursing wounds. Furthermore, Ali Patberg and Erin Boley transferred to Indiana and Oregon, respectively, making the body count even smaller.

Now with 11 scholarship players, including four incoming freshmen, McGraw has an embarrassment of riches after scrapping through last season with merely seven scholarship players from the beginning of January.

“I have to get used to looking down the bench and realizing, ‘Hey, we have some guards!’” McGraw said with a laugh.

Avoiding complacency and learning how to effectively use a rotation again are going to be two of the primary adjustments for the Fighting Irish, the likely consensus preseason pick to repeat as national champions the way Connecticut was last year.

With the top four scorers returning — seniors Arike Ogunbowale (20.8 points per game) and Jessica Shepard (15.6), junior Jackie Young (14.5) and senior Marina Mabrey (14.4) — plus the addition of the two-time All-American Turner with sophomore forward Mikayla Vaughn, who had a strong start as a freshman before getting sidelined with an ACL tear (8.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in the six games she played), there is no team in the country that bests the Fighting Irish frontcourt and backcourt.

One of the first items on McGraw’s checklist, especially with a deeper bench, is incorporating 40 minutes of intense team defense. That will take some recalibration because of the way the Irish had to play last season, although the presence of Turner, one of the nation’s top shot blockers and inside forces, will significantly aid the defensive cause.

With only seven scholarship players last winter, the first goal was not to get anyone into foul trouble in the first half (defined as two fouls), so Notre Dame was willing to concede baskets — and then make a stronger push in the second half in an effort to survive and advance.

McGraw played probably the most zone ever in her 31-year Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame career with the Irish in an effort to protect the starters. That at times led to a “cruise control” mentality on defense while then letting their firepower on offense take command, especially in the second half.

That won’t be acceptable this year.

“Really it’s going to be more about defense and all the things we can do now that we couldn’t do before,” McGraw said of the preseason objectives. “Everything is going to be new defensively.”

Meanwhile, because of Patberg’s 2017 transfer, and season-ending injuries to the now graduated Mychal Johnson and Lili Thompson, Mabrey had to shift to point guard, which she had never played. The fiery and sharp-shooting Mabrey will remain in that starting role with newly crowned legend Ogunbowale and Young in the backcourt/wing, while Shepard and Turner provide a lethal one-two punch along the front line or high/low post.

Seeing how they coalesce without getting in each other’s way also will be assessed closely by the staff.

Freshman Jordan Nixon is the most natural point guard on the team and will see extensive action, while classmate Katlyn Gilbert — both McDonald’s All-Americans — also has played point but will be an off guard her first season, per McGraw. The trip provides an ideal opportunity to experiment.

“We’re going to look at a lot of combinations in Europe,” McGraw said. “It’s not going to be about, ‘Here’s my starting team, let’s see how they look.’ It’s going to be, ‘Here’s this team, here are these different five, and let’s see how they play together.’

“It’s not even about winning. They are like scrimmages, so you have a chance to evaluate, and hopefully the competition will be good enough so that we can at least learn something about ourselves.

“Getting Brianna back in is going to be important, and Mikayla as well. I will probably start different teams each game just so I can get that feel of, ‘Hey, Jordan, take over with the starters.’ I also want to see how Mikayla and ‘Bri’ work together. Then [sophomore forward] Danielle Patterson coming off a year where she learned a lot, where is she going to be in the mix?”

Interestingly, freshman wing Abby Prohaska and Nixon made the 12-woman cut for the 2018 U.S. Women’s U18 National Team that was to play in Mexico City in an eight-team international tournament. However, they forfeited their spots on the roster because the Aug. 1‑7 dates coincided with Notre Dame’s trip to Europe. (Anaya Peoples, a 2019 Irish commit, also made the roster and will play for Team USA because she is not yet enrolled at Notre Dame.)

Life on top of the women’s basketball world comes with many such decisions.


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