Notre Dame Fighting Irish Women’s Basketball Preview: Top Topics
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Notre Dame Women’s Basketball Preview: Top Topics

A phenomenal 2010-19 decade that featured eight regular season conference or tournament titles (Big East or ACC), seven Final Fours, five title appearances and the 2018 national championship went through the ultimate thud to begin the 2020s.

The graduation/departure of all five starters from 2019, a couple of transfers and a litany of injuries ravaged the 2019-20 lineup, resulting in a 13-18 finish and eventually the retirement of Naismith Hall of Fame head coach Muffet McGraw.

Notre Dame began practice under first-year head coach Niele Ivey on Oct. 14.
Notre Dame began practice under first-year head coach Niele Ivey on Oct. 14. (Notre Dame Athletics)

After a year in the NBA, former 2007-19 Fighting Irish assistant Niele Ivey, also the point guard for the 2001 national champs, was handed the reins and eagerly anticipates returning the program into superpower status in the coming years.

“I’ve been preparing for this moment a long time,” she said this Monday, nearly two weeks since the 2019-20 team opened practice on Oct. 14. “Stepping on that court for the first day was like full circle. This is what I’ve been working for … it’s very powerful.”

Youth will continue to permeate the 2020-21 edition, although the top returning scorer from last year is a sixth-year senior in 5-10 former North Carolina graduate transfer guard Destinee Walker (14.5 points per game).

Also returning are three All-ACC freshmen from last season: 6-2 forward Sam Brunelle (13.9 points per game), 5-10 guard Anaya Peoples (12.6 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game before undergoing shoulder surgery in mid-January) and 5-10 guard Katlyn Gilbert (13.6 points per game), who took a medical redshirt the previous year.

Six newcomers fortify the lineup, led by junior Virginia Tech transfer guard Dara Mabrey, and five incoming freshmen, four of whom were top-50-ranked recruits. Here are some of the top questions for the 2020-21 season:

Has the schedule been released yet?

It possibly could be in the coming days or the first week of November.

• Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA Division I Council ruled that Division I men’s and women’s basketball can play games starting on November 25 (two weeks later than normal). No exhibition or closed scrimmages will be allowed before that date.

• There will be 20 ACC games (18 last year), with the first on Dec. 10.

• Four or five non-conference games will be on the docket, and they are projected to be regionalized bus trips. Annual rival Connecticut will not be on this year’s non-conference slate.

Will fans be allowed to attend games at Notre Dame?

Highly doubtful other than family, or quite limited. Ivey did indicate this is something the university is still playing by ear, with volleyball, the lone indoor fall sport, used as a primary reference point.

“We’re just very fortunate to be able to play,” Ivey noted.

Have there been any COVID-19 setbacks on the team?

There has been no stoppage in practice. Since returning on Aug. 10 for fall semester, phase one included only one coach working with one player, and phase two still working out in masks. Phase three is being able to partake in five-on-zero work, while phase four (not yet reached) would be engaging in five-on-five action.

The football team has served as a strong example of protocol with the pandemic.

“They were here early and they pretty much created the playbook for all sports teams,” Ivey said. “… I’ve used a lot of the examples that they’ve set. We’ve had conversations with their director of operations and other coaches just to make sure we were following guidelines.”

What is the overall health update?

Junior guard Abby Prohaska has been cleared after medically redshirting last season because of pulmonary embolism, and Peoples was cleared in the summer from her shoulder surgery.

“She is playing at a very high level, she’s in better shape, she’s worked on her game,” praised Ivey of Peoples. “She’s been an extremely bright spot and I’m super excited for her. Incredible potential.”

Brunelle also overcame a battle with tendinitis.

The prime concerns are with the “bigs.”

• Junior 6-4 forward Danielle Cosgrove, who has played sparingly, announced earlier this month that she has left for this semester to work on mental health back in her home at New York, and plans to return for the second semester. She was back in town last weekend to visit with the team.

“She has a great relationship with our team,” Ivey said. “As a coach, I just wanted to make sure she has all the resources she needs in order to get better. Mental health is one of the number one problems with college student athletes.

“[Having been] a student-athlete, I understand the pressures that they have. I’m hoping we can continue to help them, take care of them outside of just development as basketball players.”

Meditation and yoga sessions have been added to facilitate those endeavors.

• Senior 6-4 center Mikayla Vaughn, who played 20 games last year and averaged 10.6 points and 7.0 rebounds in 26.6 minutes of action per contest, is recovering from spring knee surgery and is expected to be available in “a month and a half,” or by the time the ACC slate commences.

• Freshman 6-5 center Natalija Marshall, tore her ACL last Dec. 4 and, like Vaughn, has been limited to about 50 percent capacity in practices. Whether she will participate in game action this season is to be determined later.

If one had to guess the starting lineup, what would it be?

Minus Vaughn right now, it likely would feature the aforementioned Walker, Peoples, Brunelle and Gilbert, with Mabrey added into the four-guard, perimeter-oriented lineup.

Former top-5 recruit Brunelle is in line to be the face of the program. In our opinion Peoples was the best all-around player on both ends of the court last season prior to her injury. However, the addition of Mabrey provides an instant spark that Ivey anticipated.

“She brings so much leadership … it just brought another dimension to the team,” Ivey said. “She brings the intangibles: she’s tough, she brings a ‘swag.’ She definitely brings that energy and confidence, and that’s something that’s going to be very beneficial for our team.”

Two other Mabreys starred at Notre Dame — current assistant Michaela (2012-16) and all-time three-point leader Marina (2015-19).

Dara started every game of her freshman and sophomore seasons before entering the transfer portal this spring. As a freshman in 2018-19 she led Tech in assists, averaged 11.2 points per game and finished third-nationally in three-point percentage (46.2) while sinking a single-season school-record 80.

This past season her three-point total (75) and shooting percentage beyond the arc (36.4) dipped, but the latter was still the third best in the ACC while helping the Hokies to a 21-9 record and what would have been an NCAA Tournament bid had it not been cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mabrey averaged 11.7 points this past season, and finished with 11 points, five rebounds, three steals and two assists in a 68-62 win at Notre Dame Feb. 20.

Her three-point shooting skills are a crucial addition to a Notre Dame team that last year among 349 teams finished 317th in three-point field-goal percentage converted (.271) and 309th in three-point goals made per game (4.1).

“She does a really good job of bringing the team together,” Ivey noted. “When they’re struggling in practice, she’s the first one to bring the group together to get them focused. She’s always being vocal, she’s always the one leading in the text threads, just making sure everyone is where they need to be in whatever situation we have off the court.”

Which of the five freshmen is most likely to help right away?

That would be 6-2 Maddy Westbeld — whose sister Kathryn was a starter and remarkable leader for the 2018 national champs.

“She came in with a college body, so I feel she’s had the easiest transition coming from high school,” Ivey said. “She’s definitely someone you guys will be talking about later. She has an incredible work ethic … she can play the 1 through 5 position and that’s something I need right now.”

What is the prime concern?

Size, especially with Vaughn and Marshall limited right now, which also translates to rebounding.

Among 349 Division I teams last year, Notre Dame was 309th in rebound margin with a minus-5.7 average per game.

What might be a realistic projection in 2019-20?

It all starts with returning to the NCAA Tournament, which is certainly doable with the presence of five McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster.

With relatively decent health and the return of a healthy Vaughn, a win or two in the tournament would be a bonus.

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