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ND Women’s Basketball

No. 1 Irish look to expand on dynasty in 2016

| Thursday, November 3, 2016

In the corner of one eye — accompanied by whispers that one of the greatest dynasties in sports may be ending — is that symbol. The one that can be seen glowing atop Flanner Hall if you exit Notre Dame’s practice court at the Pit and leave the Joyce Center. The one that will be beside Notre Dame’s name for at least the season opener, and likely longer. The only thing in front of the Irish right now: “#1.”

In the corner of the other — accompanied by the echoes Stanford’s Karlie Samuelson’s deep three, the shot that helped eliminate Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2010, against the backboard before going through the hoop — are swarms of new competition, and each wants a piece of the No. 1 spot that finally looks within reach.

Irish junior forward Brianna Turner leaps over a defender in Notre Dame’s 90-84 loss to Stanford on March 25 in the NCAA tournament.Caitlyn Jordan | The Observer

Irish junior forward Brianna Turner leaps over a defender in Notre Dame’s 90-84 loss to Stanford on March 25 in the NCAA tournament.

Just in conference, there’s the team who rank fifth in the nation, returning five starters after giving Notre Dame one of its closest fights of the regular season. There’s the one team to have beaten the Irish in ACC play. And there’s the team who did what many expected of Notre Dame last year — carry the mantle of the ACC into the national title game. And outside the ACC, there’s a few familiar foes.

After a half-decade of cruising past most of the field without reaching the top, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw faces a different landscape this year after national champions Connecticut graduated three starters. The Irish are the preseason No. 1, but with a deeper pool of challengers than ever before. Speaking at the team’s media day on Oct. 17, McGraw said she expects to see a more open field than ever before this year.

“I’m expecting that this is the year where parity finally hits women’s basketball,” McGraw said. “It’s a long time coming. I think it’s going to be great for the game. I think there’s a lot of teams that can win it, just in our conference. Louisville is a great team with just about everybody coming back. Miami’s got everybody coming back. Syracuse is coming off a Final Four. Duke’s a team that’s a little under the radar right now. There’s a lot of great talent in the ACC.

“Nationally, you’ve got Tennessee with just about everybody back. Baylor has almost everybody back. Stanford’s got a really good team coming back. This is a year where nobody lost a lot of talent except for Connecticut. I think that evens things out and I think maybe this will be a year where we’ll see a different number one every week like the men had last year — which I thought was really exciting. Unless we’re the ones that are not number one. Then I wouldn’t be quite as excited.”

Leading Notre Dame’s push for national championship to go alongside the 2001 title is 2016 All-American sophomore Brianna Turner. Turner missed six games, including the 91-81 loss to Connecticut, last season because of a shoulder injury, which she had surgery on during the offseason. McGraw said she had been easing Turner back, but believes the recovery process may have added a new dimension to the junior forward’s game.

“She had surgery in April — it went really well,” she said. “They’re just being extra cautious because of the time of the year. She’s been playing three-on-three and half-court. She just hasn’t been going all-out in the scrimmages yet.”

“Her big improvement is going to be the free-throw jumper. She’s got to be able to face up and hit the jumper. She’s actually shot some threes because all she can do is just shoot right now. She’s been really working on her shot.”

The Irish will have to replace two starters from 2016’s team: guards Madison Cable and Michaela Mabrey. Replacing them will be sophomores Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey, Michaela’s sister. However, with both sophomore guards having seen significant action in their debut season, when they each averaged more than 10 points per game, McGraw is confident in their ability to step up. McGraw said Ogunbowale’s work this offseason should ensure she adjusts easily to a starting role.

“She made a huge jump when she came back [this year] in terms of her discipline and her sense of urgency,” she said. “I was really impressed with how she approached this summer. She has worked out. She’s in really great shape. That’s helping her. She’s confident, which she was last year. She’s fearless, which she was last year. Her three-point shot looks a lot better — it looks like she spent a lot of time working on her shot. We’re expecting similar to what she did last year but a lot more help on the defensive side.”

McGraw said she will be hoping to see a major impact again from her freshmen this year: Erin Boley and Jackie Young. She hopes to see both players provide serious scoring production for her team, she said.

Irish sophomore guard Arike Ogunbuwale drives toward the basket in Notre Dame’s 90-84 loss to Stanford on March 25 in Lexington, Ken.Caitlyn Jordan | The Observer

Irish sophomore guard Arike Ogunbuwale drives toward the basket in Notre Dame’s 90-84 loss to Stanford on March 25 in Lexington, Ken.

“I think they’re excited and anxious to see how it’s going to go in a game and how much playing time they’re going to get, what their contribution is going to be, what their role is going to be,” McGraw said. “It’s obviously going to be smaller than it was in high school, but it’s going to be pretty big for a freshman. I see both of them coming in and having the green light to score. That’s what they do best.”

Notre Dame will host the preseason WNIT to start the regular season, before a run of out-of-conference games that includes one of the biggest rivalries in the sport, when the Irish meet Connecticut on Dec. 7. That game is followed by a run of six consecutive road games over Christmas and the New Year as the Irish begin to move into conference play.

After a road game with the Miami team who defeated the Irish in the 2014-15 season, Notre Dame adds one more out-of-conference game against one of the sport’s top programs in Tennessee. Down the stretch, the Irish are at home for six of their final nine regular season games, including against Duke, Louisville and Florida State. Before any of those games, however, the Irish will open the season with an exhibition game against Roberts Wesleyan.

The Irish will go into that game as the top-ranked team in the country for the first time since 2001, but McGraw said she would rather win that honor on the court than be handed it during preseason.

“I wouldn’t [put us at No. 1],” McGraw said. “I would put us in the top five but there’s a lot of good teams.

“This time of year, we haven’t earned anything. I want to earn it.”

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel