Blue and Gold Illustrated

May 2017 Issue

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

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Page 49 of 63

50 MAY 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED WOMEN'S BASKETBALL BY LOU SOMOGYI "For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, 'It might have been.'" — Poet John Greenleaf Whit- tier (1807-92) F resh off her April 1 induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Notre Dame head coach Muffet Mc- Graw was asked several days after- wards if there was anything else left on her basketball "bucket list." "There's a lot left to do, let's not even go there," the 62-year-old Mc- Graw said with a groan. "Every year I feel like it's a disappointment — the last two years especially." After five straight Final Four appear- ances from 2011-15 — tied for second- most in NCAA Tournament history — it speaks of how high the bar has been set when back-to-back ACC regular- season and tournament titles (and five straight league championships overall) plus a 66-6 record leave her unfulfilled or with an aching void. In each of the last two seasons, the Fighting Irish were eliminated by Stan- ford in the Lexington Regional, 90-84 in the Sweet 16 last year for a final 33-2 mark, and 76-75 this March in the Elite Eight when a last-second drive by sophomore Arike Ogunbowale was snuffed, leaving the Irish 33-4. Notre Dame squandered a 16-point advan- tage built at the start of the second half. The anguish was exacerbated be- cause junior All-American forward Brianna Turner was lost for the sea- son with an ACL tear in the clos- ing minute of the first half of Notre Dame's 88-82 overtime victory ver- sus Purdue in the second round of the NCAA Tournament March 19. "Just losing so early and coming so close without Bri, it makes it harder," said McGraw, who won her sole na- tional title in 2001. "I'd rather lose by 15 or 20 than lose by one." Three years earlier during an Elite Eight victory against Baylor, the 36-0 Irish lost senior star center Natalie Achonwa to an ACL tear in the closing minutes of that triumph. While there was no guarantee that Achonwa's pres- ence could have vanquished the Con- necticut dynasty in the NCAA Tour- nament that year, not knowing only heightened the desolation of defeat or feeling of what might have been. Ranked No. 1 in the preseason, Notre Dame had a window of op- portunity this season because UConn had graduated three starters and, by their standards, was rebuilding to merely Final Four level. Indeed, the Huskies' 111-game win- ning streak was snapped in the Final Four by Mississippi State before the Bulldogs lost to South Carolina (who the Irish defeated in the Final Four two years ago) in the championship tilt. It should be noted that the Game- cocks won the title despite suffering their own season-ending injury to 6-4 center Alaina Coates, the No. 2 over- all pick in the WNBA Draft April 13. However, South Carolina still had 6-5 A'Ja Wilson — the nation's No. 1 ranked player in the class of 2014 according to ESPN HoopGurlz, with Turner No. 2 — to provide excellent size and inside presence. Minus Turner, Notre Dame had no such depth down low, and the sec- ond best "big" for the Irish, junior Kathryn Westbeld, was playing on a leg and a half while battling through an ankle injury suffered in mid-Janu- ary (she underwent surgery in April). Westbeld still averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and her high-post passing (76 assists, 2.4 per game) was vital to the offense's flow late in the year when the squad was peaking. Her rehab is projected to be about four months. "The medical team did an MRI and determined there was enough damage to have surgery," McGraw said. "You kind of look back and say, 'Dang, she was playing …' "It didn't make it any worse. That was the reason that she played. She did play through some pain. She's such a mentally tough kid and just wanted to be out there with the team." WILL TURNER PLAY IN 2017-18? UConn will be the overwhelm- ing favorite next year to regain its No. 1 stronghold with the return of four starters, the addition of 6-6 Duke transfer Azura Stevens (18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in 2015-16) and Kentucky transfer Batouly Camara (both sat out in 2016-17), plus the incoming nation's No. 1 recruit, Megan Walker. With a healthy Turner, Notre Dame is capable of at least a Final Four run with three other starters returning and Stanford graduate transfer Lili (pronounced Lee Lee) Thompson — a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who helped end the Irish campaign in 2016 — designated to replace the graduat- ing Lindsay Allen at point guard. Turner's surgery occurred April 12, but there will be no timetable set for her return until further evaluation is made before the start of practice in October. Rehabilitation for the ACL often can take six to nine months, if not longer — and that's not including getting into basketball shape, clear- ing mental hurdles and other condi- tioning aspects. "I want her to be 100 percent," Mc- Graw said. "I don't want her to just be cleared to play, because she is just too good a player to just go half a year. We'll wait and see in the fall what that looks like." Turner taking a medical redshirt in 2017-18 and returning for a fifth season of eligibility in 2018-19 is not out of the question, but it is not something either McGraw or Turner is exploring as of now. WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN Notre Dame turns the page to the 2017-18 season with All-American Brianna Turner's status uncertain 2017 NCAA TOURNAMENT RESULTS First Round: Notre Dame 79, Robert Morris 49 Second Round: Notre Dame 88, Purdue 82 (OT) Sweet 16: Notre Dame 99, Ohio State 76 Elite Eight: Stanford 76, Notre Dame 75

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