Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 8, 2018*

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 47 of 55

48 OCT. 8, 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED WOMEN'S BASKETBALL BY LOU SOMOGYI T hroughout the 2017‑18 bas‑ ketball campaign while Notre Dame endured one injury setback after another, there was at least some reassurance that 2018‑19 would be head coach Muffet Mc‑ Graw's best team on paper in her 32 years. Being better, however, doesn't always translate to being the best, at least not in a particular year. Amidst all the tumult last season, the Fighting Irish still captured the program's second national title a year ahead of schedule. This upcoming campaign ac‑ tually was supposed to be "The Year" (and still could be) for at least four reasons. One, Connecticut — which is the road every national cham‑ pion in women's basketball must go through — lost three of their best players to the WNBA Draft, all of them top‑10 picks. Two, no team in the country matches the trio of guards in expe‑ rience, versatility and star power than what the Irish possess with se‑ niors Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey, and junior Jackie Young. Three, only Baylor rivals Notre Dame's "Twin Tower" senior tandem of 6‑4 Jessica Shepard and 6‑3 Brianna Turner, a multiple All‑American who didn't even play last season while re‑ covering from knee surgery. Four, Naismith Hall of Fame basket‑ ball coach Muffet McGraw can now actually look down the bench and find guards on scholarship, led by incoming McDonald's All‑Americans Jordan Nixon and Katlyn Gilbert, as well as sophomore forward Mikayla Vaughn, also sidelined last year with an ACL. Who can stop them from repeating? These would be the top challengers: Connecticut One could still make a case that the 11‑time national champs since 1995, eliminated the last two years in the Final Four on horn‑beating shots for their lone losses that year, are still the team to beat. Consider this: The Huskies lineup includes, per ESPN HoopGurlz, 2015 No. 1 player Katie Lou Samuelson, 2017 No. 1 player Megan Walker, 2018 No. 1 player Christyn Williams, 2016 No. 3 player Crystal Dangerfield, 2018 No. 5 player Olivia Nelson‑Ododa and 2015 No. 6 player Napheesa Col‑ lier — plus three other five‑stars. There also is likely to be a ravenous hunger after a "drought" of two years without a national title. The Dec. 2 matchup at Notre Dame will evoke curiosity, but these two seem destined to meet again in the Final Four when it really counts. Baylor This is the one program that can match the Turner‑Shepard tandem with 6‑7 Kalani Brown (20.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game last year) and 6‑4 Lauren Cox (15.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per contest), whom Notre Dame heavily recruited. The Bears also signed four of the nation's top 20 prospects in 2018, although ex‑ perience at point guard is a question mark. Like McGraw, head coach Kim Mulkey has two national titles under her belt, and is in the hunt for more. Louisville Two of Notre Dame's three losses last season came to the Car‑ dinals, the first the mind‑boggling 100‑67 setback in January that helped put the Irish on the right path in its own way, and then the 74‑72 defeat in the ACC final. Guard Asia Durr, the ACC Player of the Year, headlines a star‑ studded and veteran lineup that will miss center Myisha Hines‑ Allen. Over the past decade, Lou‑ isville has twice been the NCAA runner‑up, and lost last year in overtime in the Final Four to Mis‑ sissippi State. Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford The excellent Pac‑12 trio all could represent the West in the Final Four, with Oregon the early favorite. The Ducks, who lost to the Irish in the Elite Eight last spring, re‑ turn four double‑figure scorers, led by All‑American Sabrina Ionescu and 6‑4 Ruthy Hebard — and add Notre Dame transfer Erin Boley, the 2016 Gatorade National Player of the Year. Oregon State is deep and has given Notre Dame all it could handle each of the past two seasons. Stanford eliminated the Irish in NCAA Tour‑ nament action in 2016 and 2017, and has its own esteemed coach in Tara VanDerveer. While those might be the top chal‑ lengers, Notre Dame also will face during the regular season seven teams ranked from Nos. 10‑22 in Athlon Sports 2018-19 College Basketball Preview: • No. 10 Marquette, whom the Irish had to defeat in overtime last year. • No. 11 North Carolina State (one of three teams to vanquish the Irish in ACC play). • No. 12 Iowa, the Big Ten favorite, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. • No. 15 Syracuse, possibly No. 16 South Carolina, the 2017 national champ, in the Vancouver Classic, No. 18 DePaul and No. 22 Miami. It won't be lonely at the top for Notre Dame when it comes to facing premier competition. ✦ Top Challengers Attempt To Squelch A Notre Dame Repeat All-American Arike Ogunbowale is part of a veteran and elite guard trio that starts for Notre Dame, but plenty of challengers will attempt to unseat the Fighting Irish from the summit. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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