Can She Lead Notre Dame to a Hoops Repeat After 20 Months Away?

Can She Lead Notre Dame to a Hoops Repeat After 20 Months Away?

Why you should care

Because the women’s basketball national champions got even better.

When a last-second shot gave Notre Dame the NCAA women’s basketball title in April, the best player on the team sprinted onto the court from the bench, in street clothes, to join the celebration. Arike Ogunbowale got the glory, with game-winning shots in back-to-back games, but center Brianna Turner is arguably the team’s finest talent — and her return this year from a knee injury is one of the main reasons why the Lady Irish have been picked to rule women’s hoops once again.

Turner is more likely to be cracking a joke than worrying about the grind or the pressure of a title defense. Before the start of the season, she wasn’t even sure when Notre Dame would play powerhouse Connecticut (it’s Dec. 2), saying with a shrug: “We all know we’re going to play UConn eventually.”

Turner grew up in Texas, the daughter of two college basketball players, Kellye and Howard Turner. As a child, she also played soccer and volleyball, but as soon as Turner got to high school it was all basketball — Texas universities were already recruiting her in middle school. But the only child “felt like being farther away immersed me into my environment,” she says, so she set off for elite hoops and academics in South Bend, Indiana.

From the sideline, Turner became a quasi coach, which head coach Muffet McGraw says will help her leadership skills.

A two-time All-American and semifinalist for the Naismith Award for national player of the year, the 6-foot-3 Turner is a long, agile post-defender who runs like a guard. She is known to block a shot, outlet the ball and still beat defenders down the court for an alley-oop or an easy layup. She’s not a bruiser in the post, but she plays smart and uses her quick hands to her advantage. Her specialty is scoring near the basket, but she’s also a threat outside the paint with her jumper or as a skilled passer.

In her junior season, she averaged 15.3 points per game and led the Atlantic Coast Conference in blocks and shooting percentage, rolling into the 2017 NCAA tournament with the top-seeded Lady Irish on her back. “At that time I would probably call her the best player on their team,” says longtime Notre Dame athletics reporter Allison Hayes, currently with the South Bend area’s ABC57 and the Big Ten Network.

With less than a minute left in the second quarter of a second-round game against Purdue, Turner cut to the basket and jumped to catch a pass just beneath the hoop. When she came down, her left leg buckled as it hit the floor and she fell to her side. “I didn’t immediately know what happened because I walked off the court and to the training room,” she says. It was a torn ACL.

The devastated Turner watched from the sideline for the rest of the tournament as her team was bounced one game short of the Final Four, and she started on the long road to rehab — which turned out to be far longer than expected. At first, trainers eyed a January return, but head coach Muffet McGraw thought playing a shortened senior season would harm Turner’s shot to play professionally in the WNBA. “I thought we’d be really shortchanging her, and I didn’t think that would be fair to Bri,” says McGraw.

McGraw didn’t expect her team to be so shortchanged, though. By the time Notre Dame pulled off its championship run — including dethroning Connecticut — it had just seven scholarship players left, due to a bizarre series of injuries. From the sideline, Turner became a quasi coach, which McGraw says will help her leadership skills.

Her return to full strength is partly why there’s so much optimism in South Bend. “It would be a mild surprise if they don’t win it all again this year,” says Howard Megdal, a women’s basketball reporter for FanSided and other publications. His WNBA mock draft has Turner going in the first round (along with three other Irish players). The biggest test for WNBA scouts, Megdal says, “is to show that she’s healthy and show that she’s got a diversified, modified WNBA game.”

While she was able to work on her outside shot in rehab, Turner has not taken a single 3-point shot in her collegiate career. She might have to play more away from the basket, given how well Jessica Shepard (15.6 points per game) played at center in Turner’s absence. Turner’s biggest impact likely will be on defense. No one on Notre Dame’s team blocked more than 28 total shots last season. The previous year, Turner blocked 86. As Notre Dame tries to reintegrate its loaded roster of stars, early returns are promising: Turner is averaging 14 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, and the Lady Irish are undefeated, even if McGraw has criticized their sloppy play at times.

Turner’s off-court life has taken a few turns as well. She started out wanting to be a business major, but switched to graphic design. She even tried play-by-play announcing for one of her team’s games while she was injured. Turner enjoys reading biographies and personal narratives by other strong, confident, funny women such as Tiffany Haddish and Amy Poehler, and she preordered Michelle Obama’s Becoming, as she is in the midst of writing her own success story.

What would the 22-year-old graduate student tell her high school self? “You’re definitely going to hit some obstacles, but know that you will eventually bounce back and, so far, nothing has been permanent.”

Read more: How star forward Monique Billings broke out of the box.… Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ is trying to prove there’s room in the modern game for a big man who can’t shoot.

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