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Student practice squad helps women’s basketball prepare for games

| Tuesday, April 10, 2018

It’s been a little over a week since junior Arike Ogunbowale sunk not one, but two game-winning buzzer beaters to lead Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team to a national championship. But, to those who play against her every day, this shot is nothing new.

The Notre Dame Women’s Basketball team’s practice squad, comprised of 17 male students, serves as the scout team for the Irish, senior captain Reed Hunnicutt said. The practice players attend practice each day and fill the roles of specific players the team will encounter in the next game. They also see the ins and outs and extra hours spent in the gym.

“When Arike hit that last shot, I’d probably seen her make that like 50 times in practice,” Hunnicutt said.

Senior assistant captain Conor Triplett said that Ogunbowale practiced her game winning shot often.

“She’s not lying when she says that’s what she practiced,” he said. “She wanted the ball in her hands, and we all wanted the ball in her hands.”

Practice squad members have a unique perspective into each women’s basketball player. Hunnicutt explained that prior to each practice, the coaches will show film of the team’s next opponent to the practice squad, assigning each member an opposing player to imitate and teaching the plays the team runs. From there, it’s just basketball.

“The biggest thing is trying to be smart basketball players, because at the end of the day they want us to run certain things and do certain things, so guys need to be able to listen and run plays,” Triplett said.  “We try to be the brains behind it because we have a lot of guys that aren’t used to that: learn a play and then 15 minutes later, run it live.”

Triplett and Hunnicutt were both recruited for the team after playing games of pickup basketball. Hunnicutt, the recruiting coordinator for the past three years, said that the team looks for a mix of post and guard players. Players must also measure physicality based on what the team needs. Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey said that the ability to adapt style of play to fit the role is something she looks for in potential practice players, but that players must still be competitive.

“The practice squad provides more strength and athleticism.  It gives our young women the opportunity to play against bigger, stronger players which helps us when we play against the likes of UConn, Louisville and Texas A&M,” Ivey said in an email. “As coaches, we like our practices to be harder than the games and with our fantastic squad, it usually is.”

Playing against the practice squad gives the team a competitive edge in real games, Hunnicutt explained.

“I think it just gives them a more competitive look, because if they can beat us, they can probably compete with the teams they’re playing, and we have a little more size and athleticism than the teams they play, so I think it helps them to have us there,” Hunnicutt said.

Off the court, the practice squad supports the team at games and online, especially through their Twitter account, @NDPracticeSquad. Last week, Hunnicutt and Triplett, along with other members of the practice squad, traveled to Columbus for the Final Four and watched the team claw its way back to a national championship. After the game, they joined fans and families back in the team hotel to welcome back the Irish, and head coach Muffet McGraw stopped the receiving line to seek them out.  

“[She] saw us and walked over and gave each of us a hug and said, ‘We wouldn’t be here without you guys,’ and from somebody like her to take time out of what was probably one of the greatest half hours of her life was really cool, and it really meant a lot to me and to the other guys that she went out of her way to thank us.” Triplett said.

The women’s basketball players followed McGraw‘s lead in seeking out the practice team after the game.

“We can joke about how much we actually help or what our real purpose is, but when all of them stopped by and said, ‘We hate you guys when we’re there, but we really do appreciate what you guys do,’ that was very rewarding,” Hunnicutt said.

Hunnicutt and Triplett noted that having a front row seat allowed them to see the growth of individual players and the team as a whole, especially in a year where the team dealt with a plethora of injuries.

“Day in, day out, we see how hard they work and how good they actually are, and when I hear people on campus talk about, ‘Oh, we could beat them, they’re not that good,’ it’s like, you guys have no idea, no concept of the skill level these girls have.” Triplett said.

“There might not be ten people on campus that can guard Arike one on one,” Hunnicutt said.

Triplett, for his part, thinks there are three people on-campus who can guard Ogunbowale one-on-one: himself, Hunnicutt and Rex Pflueger, Notre Dame Men’s Basketball Defensive Player of the Year in 2017.

For Hunnicutt, playing on the practice team is an important way to help the team improve.

“The whole reason I signed up is that I wanted to help them get better every day and really put all the effort and time I had into getting them better and to the point where they could win a national championship,” he said. “I think people need to appreciate not even us but how good the girls are, because they embarrass us some days, and we’ve got a pretty solid group of guys.”

Triplett encouraged the student body to turn out for more women’s basketball games.

“Anybody who‘s been to a girl’s game knows those gyms get loud and those games are fast, because we play as fast as anybody else in the country, and it’s so fun to watch and it’s such good basketball,” he said. “You’re doing yourself such a disservice as a basketball fan if you’re not going to these games when you’re here.”

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About Claire Kramer

Claire Kramer is a senior staff writer majoring in American Studies with minors in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy (JED) and Theology. A proud native Kansas Citian, she never lets anyone forget that indeed, the Royals won the World Series.

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