ATLANTA – The term “unprecedented’ takes on greater significance when Muffet McGraw uses it to explain a situation.
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There aren’t many things the Hall of Fame head coach hasn’t seen or experienced during her more than four decades on the sideline, not to mention her years as a player.
But this season has thrown McGraw for a loss.
She shakes her head and tries to comprehend how badly Notre Dame has been plagued by the dreaded ACL curse.
The Fighting Irish have seen four players limp off the court with ACL tears in the last calendar year.
All-American forward Brianna Turner tore her ACL in last year’s NCAA tournament and is sitting out this season. Guard Mychal Johnson tore her ACL in preseason workouts. Forward Mikyala Vaughn tore her ACL in a practice before the season started.
Notre Dame took another big blow last week when it was announced graduate transfer Lili Thompson had torn her ACL in a game against Wake Forest.
“I’ve never seen anything like this many ACLs,” McGraw said on Sunday after No. 2 Notre Dame used a strong first half to pave the way for a 77-54 victory over Georgia Tech. “We’ve had injuries. The ’97 team had injuries too, but we got them back. We had broken thumbs and little things, but they came back. The season-ending injuries this season is what makes it tough.”
Through it all, Notre Dame just keeps winning.
The Fighting Irish (15-1, 4-0) have a big showdown on Thursday at No. 3 Louisville (18-0, 4-0) in a battle that could go a long way in determining the ACC title. Notre Dame, the four-time defending conference champion, is 66-2 in regular season play since entering the league.
As they try to make a run for an ACC-record fifth straight title, the Fighting Irish have been keeping the surgeons and physical therapists busy in South Bend and their coaches up at night searching for answers.
Notre Dame is down to just seven healthy scholarship players and three walk-ons.
And even “healthy” is an optimistic description for the remaining players.
Junior forward Jessica Shepard has twice suffered ankle sprains that she’s battled through. Jackie Young sustained a broken nose and is wearing a mask during games while Kathryn Westbeld was initially slowed as she recovered from off-season ankle surgery.
McGraw doesn’t even want to imagine how much worse things would be if Shepard wasn’t eligible this season after transferring from Nebraska.
The NCAA approved the former All-Big Ten Conference selection’s waiver to play immediately on the day of Notre Dame’s first exhibition game.
Once considered a valuable addition to an already-potent lineup, Shepard has become a saving grace. She’s averaging 14.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
“I toast the state of Nebraska every day,” McGraw said. “I don’t know where we would be without her. We would not be in a good place, that’s for sure.”
ACL injuries are the black shadow hovering over women’s sports. Females are at least three to six times more likely to tear their ACLs than men. The preponderance can vary by sport or study performed.
Various theories abound as to why women are at greater risk, from hormones to hip angles to landing tendencies to muscular imbalances.
Most women’s coaches brace themselves for at least one ACL tear per season to head off the disappointment.
Notre Dame had been instituting preventative exercises to try and lessen the odds, but were still hit with a quartet of misery.
McGraw has tried reaching out to other basketball coaches for advice, but has come up empty.
“Nobody has ever seen this before. We are actually looking for someone who has gone through it and we haven’t found anybody yet,” she said. “But our lacrosse and softball teams have both had a ton, so different sports have had them. But I haven’t seen it in basketball.”
Although all the ACL injuries dealt Notre Dame a blow, Thompson going down seemed unusually cruel to McGraw.
“Lili was tough. We just keep taking punches. We feel like a punching bag and that one was hard because we need a point guard,” McGraw said. “Not having a point guard forces Marina (Mabrey) to play the point for 40 minutes and forces Jackie out of her comfort zone and playing some point and Arike (Ogunbowale) to handle the ball more. It requires everybody to play a little different role than they are used to playing, so that has been really tough.”
The Fighting Irish have altered their practice approach and game strategy because of the limited bodies available.
“We’ve been playing a lot more zone, practicing less and taking more days off to rest them, but really to prevent injuries,” McGraw said. “We are walking through stuff instead of going full speed and watching more film. It’s hard to practice less and still work on things like Jackie running the point.”
Having three walk-ons on the roster is a rarity for Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish need players to practice and in case foul trouble arises during games.
“We’ve never had that many walk-ons. The last walk-on we had was Amanda Tsipis, and we haven’t had one since she graduated (in 2008). She has a baby now and is married, so it’s been a while,” McGraw said. “We had walk-on tryouts early on luckily. Nicole Benz is one of our managers and we got her eligible over Christmas to add her.”
Thompson detailed her reaction to suffering an ACL tear in a blog entry she has been writing for her final college basketball season.
Thompson said she ran into the athletic trainer for Notre Dame’s men’s basketball team while leaving the doctor’s office last week. He told Thompson he was sorry about the injury, wished her a speedy recovery and told her to keep her spirits high.
“But what he said right at the end was so blunt and so true, it instantly put things in perspective – ‘It’s not cancer,’” Thompson wrote. “As someone who has lost beloved family members to the disease, I immediately said, ‘You’re right.’ It’s not life or death. It really, really stinks. But it’s not life or death.”
McGraw is trying to prevent Notre Dame’s healthy players from allowing the injuries to get them down. She doesn’t want them preoccupied on what Notre Dame doesn’t have or how much harder it may be to win games. She wants them thinking about what they can achieve and what they can overcome.
“I try not to let them feel sorry for themselves. I try to stay on them more,” McGraw said. “I am harder on them now than I was before just so they can stay focused.”