Notre Dame roster loaded for run at another women's title

Notre Dame roster loaded for run at another women's title
Notre Dame players and coaches pose for a group photo during the university's NCAA college basketball media day, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Muffet McGraw has spent most of her college coaching career being the hunter. Notre Dame and its coach will be the hunted this season.

That’s to be expected when you have a past All-American and a promising sophomore returning from ACL injuries, one of the nation’s top recruiting classes and almost every player back from a surprising NCAA championship team — including “Ice Twice” herself, senior Arike Ogunbowale.

“Everyone’s come back with the mindset that there’s a target on our back and we’ve got to be ready,” said McGraw, whose 800th victory at Notre Dame was provided last Easter by Ogunbowale’s acrobatic 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds left that gave the Irish a 61-58 victory over Mississippi State in the title game.

Two nights earlier, Ogunbowale’s buzzer-beating jumper with one second remaining in overtime ousted No. 1 UConn, 91-89.

It has been a whirlwind six months since. Ogunbowale took part in “Dancing with the Stars” and the team was feted at the ESPYs. McGraw sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field and even conducted the Notre Dame Marching Band during a recent football game against Stanford.

Now it’s time to work.

“I see a team that really wants to prove something again,” said McGraw, who is entering her 32nd season at Notre Dame.

Only once has Notre Dame entered the season favored to win the title, and that team in 2016-17 fell a point short against Stanford in the regional. “I don’t think I will let them get complacent. We’ve got three of four people who could 30 (points) every night. I think it’s going to be something the coaching staff will be working on — the unselfishness that we’ve always had, how we’re going to distribute the ball, who’s going to get the shots.”

Good things happen when the basketball is in the hands of the 5-foot-8 Ogunbowale, who is coming off a season during which she averaged 20.8 points per game, including 25 games with 20-plus points. She needs just 581 points to pass Skylar Diggins as the school’s all-time leading scorer.

“Getting back to the gym and being able to work out — that’s definitely where I feel comfortable,” Ogunbowale said.

Also back is 6-foot-3 graduate student Brianna Turner, who sat out last season recuperating from ACL surgery following the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Turner replaces graduated Kathryn Westbeld in the starting lineup. Before her injury, Turner averaged 15.3 points and 7.1 rebounds a game, and she has 174 career blocked shots.

“I feel like I’m a freshman all over again,” said Turner, who has shed her knee brace. “I got to see things from a different perspective that I feel I can use.”

Junior guard Jackie Young averaged 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds against Top 25 teams, scoring a career-high 32 points against UConn in the national semifinal. Senior forward Jessica Shepard, currently slowed by a foot injury, finished with 15 double-doubles while averaging 15.6 points. Senior point guard Marina Mabrey led the team in assists (168) and 3-pointers (85) while averaging 14.4 points.

“Winning the championship was great,” Mabrey said, “but the process is fun, too.”

McGraw has two promising sophomores in frontliners Mikayla Vaughn, who had ACL surgery in late November, and Danielle Patterson, who struggled at times but made great strides on the team’s summer exhibition trip to Croatia and Italy.

If that’s not enough, the roster includes four highly touted freshmen — 6-foot-4 forward Danielle Cosgrove and guards Jordan Nixon, Katlyn Gilbert and Abby Prohaska.

The season opener is Nov. 9 against Harvard.