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Saturday, June 15, 2024
The Observer

Greason: Irish great without Turner, just not great enough

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The big question for top-seeded Notre Dame going into the Lexington regional was how it would compete with junior forward Brianna Turner out with a torn ACL.

While the Irish (33-4, 15-1 ACC) will not be making the trip to Dallas after falling to second-seeded Stanford in a heartbreaking 76-75 loss, they proved this weekend the squad is good enough and versatile enough to win without Turner after holding a 16-point lead early in the third quarter.

Ignore the result for a moment. We’ll come back to that. Let’s look at the positives.

Irish freshman guard Jackie Young drives towards the basket for a layup during Notre Dame’s 76-75 loss to Stanford on Sunday at Rupp Arena.
Irish freshman guard Jackie Young drives towards the basket for a layup during Notre Dame’s 76-75 loss to Stanford on Sunday at Rupp Arena.
Irish freshman guard Jackie Young drives towards the basket for a layup during Notre Dame’s 76-75 loss to Stanford on Sunday at Rupp Arena.

Without Turner, Notre Dame’s entire offense — the offense it has been running all season — changes. Losing Turner means Notre Dame essentially does not have a big. All the offense had to be generated by 3-pointers and two 5-foot-8 guards driving through several 6-foot-plus Cardinal defenders, as opposed to consistent passes to Turner at the post.

And while, on paper, Notre Dame’s chances of success were much lower without Turner, its raw talent absolutely could have won the game. The team that went on an 18-0 run in the second quarter was absolutely capable of being the team on the ladder after the game, cutting the net.

Sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale was unstoppable for 40 minutes of Friday’s 99-76 win over Ohio State and 20 minutes of Sunday’s loss to the Cardinal (32-5, 15-3 Pac-12). She scored 32 points Friday and 21 points in the first half Sunday. Without Turner under the net to feed the ball to, Ogunbowale was free to take her shot. And she did, attempting 22 shots Friday and 16 more Sunday.

Senior guard Lindsay Allen was forced to do less orchestrating of the offense than usual and drive to the hoop herself when she didn’t have options. With Turner in the game being double- or triple-teamed, Allen always has options. And she drove successfully. She scored 16 points against the Buckeyes, tallying her usual 10 assists as well, and collected her second consecutive double-double Sunday with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Freshman forward Erin Boley earned a spot in the starting lineup once again, this time replacing Turner instead of junior forward Kathryn Westbeld, who was also back in the starting lineup despite playing on a bad ankle. And Boley took full advantage. In front of a crowd filled with her family and friends, the Hodgenville, Kentucky, native drained four 3-pointers and ended Friday with 14 points. She also sunk three 3s Sunday.

In short, the Irish played outstanding basketball, even without Turner. They looked like they had been playing this offense all season. They appeared well-adjusted and calm.

The team that came to Lexington, Kentucky, this weekend was prepared. This team was ready to win. This team knew it had suffered a loss, and every single player was ready to make up for that in every way she could. That energy and will to win was evident from the moment the Irish stepped on the court Sunday.

Allen’s 10 rebounds did not come easily. She had to fight for every single one of them, a job Turner typically takes care of. But she was successful. And standing at just 5-foot-8, that’s saying something.

Senior forward Kristina Nelson only played nine minutes against the Cardinal, and while the stat sheet only shows her two rebounds, it does not reflect the times Nelson fought for the ball, both off the board and on the ground with an energy I had never seen from her before.

Boley appeared to take on an increased leadership role. In the 19 minutes she was on the bench, she was up and down, out of her seat with every Irish basket and cheering her team on. On the court, she was in the thick of it. She never stopped moving. While Boley is clearly most comfortable outside the arc, she made moves toward the paint regularly in an attempt to get open.

The team that arrived at Rupp Arena on Sunday was a team with something to prove. These players wanted to prove their squad is not defined by one player. And they did that. For the first 20 minutes of the game, they appeared completely in sync. They had the crowd roaring. Allen made multiple no-look passes that made jaws hit the floor. Sophomore guard Marina Mabrey, who tallied 20 points against the Cardinal, got shots to drop when the Irish needed them. Ogunbowale drove through a forest of defenders, time and again, to turn nothing into something.

Irish sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale releases a jumper during Notre Dame’s 76-75 loss to Stanford on Sunday at Rupp Arena.
Irish sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale releases a jump shot during Notre Dame’s 76-75 loss to Stanford on Sunday at Rupp Arena.

Turner would have helped, certainly, but her absence is not the reason Notre Dame did not punch its ticket to Dallas. This Irish team is a team that proved it is good enough to win against elite competition, whether or not Brianna Turner is on the court.

Here’s the thing, though: It didn’t.

The Irish lost. They blew a 16-point lead, just one week after they did the same thing against Purdue — a game they had to salvage in overtime.

Irish head coach Muffet McGraw perhaps said it best: “I don’t know what happened.”

I am not going to pretend for a second that I can pinpoint a moment Notre Dame lost the game. It was a gradual slide. It was a series of shots not dropping. It was one or two instances of blown coverage the Irish just could not afford. It was leaving Stanford junior guard Brittany McPhee far too open after halftime.

It was Stanford, as well. The Cardinal were able to adjust and make changes both offensively and defensively. The Irish, on the other hand, could not.

Ogunbowale was held to four points in the second half. Boley was kept to just three, and freshman guard Jackie Young, who had proven herself an instrumental member of the Turner-less offense Friday, was unable to score at all.

It was a game of two halves, without a doubt. While the Irish proved Sunday they are capable of winning without a big, they were unable to finish it out. And that is what matters. That is what will appear in the record books. There will not be an asterisk next to this exit from the tournament since they did not have Turner. That’s the bottom line.

Notre Dame proved it is a good, even great, team Sunday. It showed flexibility and versatility. It showed new levels of drive and determination. But that’s not what matters in the long run. The Irish are headed home early.