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Turner, Irish ready for next hurdle

Did the arrival of a new year reveal what Notre Dame is not? Or what it is not yet?

If the second Thursday of the calendar year inspired doubts as to the former, Brianna Turner swatted at least some of them away on the third Thursday.

After a week lived out of character, defeat on the court entangled with drama and a potential departure off it, the Fighting Irish played the roles in which we have grown accustomed to seeing them Thursday night. On the road against a quality opponent that played with passion if not always precision, No. 7 Notre Dame beat No. 12 North Carolina 89-79. Down by double digits early, up by double digits in the middle and in a one-possession game late, the defending ACC champions avoided a second conference loss.

With a renewal of its rivalry against Tennessee awaiting on Big Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), Notre Dame perhaps also lowered eyebrows across the country that had been raised by its travails. It has, as the possibly apocryphal Chinese curse condemns, lived in interesting times of late. Sophomore Taya Reimer did not travel with the team to a Jan. 8 game at Miami and did not play in a Jan. 11 home game against Boston College, although she sat on the bench in street clothes for the latter. After speculation that the sophomore planned to transfer, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said upon the player's return over the weekend that Reimer availed herself of an offered opportunity to take time away and think about things.

With Reimer out of the mix, Miami beat Notre Dame 78-63, a game in which the Fighting Irish trailed 40-20 at halftime and were outrebounded 23-16 in that first half. In one fell swoop, or stumble, the result ended Notre Dame's 30-game winning streak in road games, its 61-game winning streak in games against unranked teams and, despite a subsequent victory against Boston College, dropped the team out of the AP top five for the first time since November 2012.

"It has been a mix of emotions this past week for everyone in this program, with the loss at Miami and Taya leaving and coming back," Irish guard Lindsay Allen said prior to Thursday's win. "There have been a lot of things going on. But we've just really stayed together in this process this whole time, and we're glad to have Taya back."

A lot of programs would call falling to No. 7 landing on your feet. Notre Dame is not a lot of programs.

Of the two developments, the drama involving Reimer might have stirred more hubbub. That's understandable given that she was a highly touted in-state recruit and would have become the second such player in about a week to leave a top program in the middle of a season in which she had started every game, following in the footsteps of now former Duke freshman Sierra Calhoun (who followed the same path as Natalie Butler, Diamond DeShields, Sadie Edwards, Alexis Jones, Leticia Romero and a whole host of high-profile transfers nationwide in the past 12 months). Coincidence, trend or neither, such movement is both curious and, if we're being honest, fodder for our gossipy ids.

But especially with Reimer now back on the court, playing 20 minutes off the bench in Chapel Hill, the loss at Miami is more notable as the program seeks one of the rarer accomplishments in college basketball, a fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four. And more indicative of the hurdles it will have to clear from this point forward.

Notre Dame, which had barely escaped after a somnolent first half a week earlier at home against Florida State when Reimer was on the court, played the first half against the Hurricanes like a team grasping for the snooze button.

"It has been a mix of emotions this past week for everyone in this program, with the loss at Miami and Taya leaving and coming back. There have been a lot of things going on. But we've just really stayed together in this process this whole time, and we're glad to have Taya back." Notre Dame sophomore Lindsay Allen

"I think the teams in the past, they always came out ready," McGraw said this week prior to the North Carolina game. "You knew that Natalie Achonwa was going to have the team ready, Kayla McBride was going to be ready, Skylar [Diggins] was going to have her team ready. The leaders we've had in the past, you just knew they were ready, no matter what. We played the same on the road as we did at home, and that's why we had that win streak on the road.

"Now with a young team -- everything is different with a young team. And it's just kind of interesting to watch them."

There is that word again: interesting.

Interesting is a team whose consistency has occasionally wavered. Interesting is a team that has profoundly disappointed its coach with its rebounding.

But it's also the word opponents might choose if asked about accounting for Turner, the 6-foot-3 freshman from Texas.

"You can know how much talent she has just by her walking in the room -- she's so long, she's so tall." Allen said.

McGraw said she told Turner during the preseason that she expected the freshman to be a consistent rebounding presence, and 7.7 rebounds in just 23.5 minutes per game represents just that. What is ahead of schedule, even before the performance Thursday night in Chapel Hill, is the offensive responsibility thus far shouldered by the freshman. While not leaps and bounds ahead of the total point production of Allen, Reimer or Michaela Mabrey, Turner is nonetheless second to All-American Jewell Loyd in field goal attempts and free throw attempts per game on the season -- and her share of attempts has ticked up notably through the first five games of conference play. The points that in preseason looked like a nice bonus in addition to the rebounds and rim protection are now relied upon -- never more than Thursday when she scored 29 points to go with 18 rebounds and seven blocks, all matching or setting career highs -- on a night when Allen also excelled against North Carolina's aggressive defense but Loyd, so often asked to do so much, scored in single digits for the first time this season.

"That is something I've been really happy with is [Turner's] consistency, which is unusual for a freshman," McGraw said earlier in the week. "That's one of the things that freshmen generally struggle with is the consistency from game to game. I mean, we've been counting on her to be our second-leading scorer pretty much all season."

And she will need to be again Monday against a Tennessee team that has its flaws but has won 11 games in a row in part by looking like Lady Vols teams of old in the paint.

More common is the experience of classmate Kathryn Westbeld. To be sure, Westbeld has more than lived up to the promise suggested by a No. 21 ranking in her class from ESPN HoopGurlz. McGraw raved in the preseason about Westbeld's potential as an inside-outside asset, able to handle the ball against pressure, pass, shoot or drive from the high post in the team's Princeton offense and embrace physical play in the post. She showed flashes of those skills against the Tar Heels, making several good cuts to the basket to receive passes en route to eight points, but she also committed a couple of turnovers and played just eight minutes. With the game in the balance late, she watched from the sideline.

There will be nights she plays significant roles, as when she had seven points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals against Syracuse or 15 points against Boston College, and more muted nights like Thursday.

Those are the ups and downs that come with youth.

"Honestly, from the beginning, it kind of hit me mentally," Westbeld said of the transition to college. "Just because coming out of high school, you're always one of the best ones on your team, there wasn't too much competition. At least for me, that's how it was. But coming here, you're not the best player anymore. It's a lot you have to take in and get used to. But I think it definitely helps you individually as a player, and that's what I've just got to keep telling myself that it's going to work out, I've just got to keep working on my game and stay focused and mentally be prepared. When I get in, that's my time to come out and play, and that's what I've got to do, I've got to come out and perform."

That's normal. What Turner offers is the exception.

Much like what Notre Dame is trying to do in maintaining the standards of a veteran team with a young roster.

Work in progress can be a misleading term, suggesting at least on some level in its very state of "ongoingness" that progress is inevitable. That isn't always the case. Sometimes what teams don't do well in October and November remains a problem in January and eventually shortens March.

Notre Dame is going to win 25 games. It is going to be in the thick of the ACC race. It is going to earn a good seed in the NCAA tournament. Anything less would require a colossal change of course beyond what could reasonably be predicted here and now. But if that is the starting point, there are any number of possible branches of the tree from that point forward. From a team that doesn't show up focused, doesn't communicate, doesn't rebound and exits in the third round of the NCAA tournament to a team that makes the trip to the Final Four.

It could be a season like the second Thursday in January. It could be a season like the third Thursday.

"I think we're still learning, and I think we're still growing," McGraw said. "I think we have a ton of potential, we really have a lot of talent. So I think for us, I think we're going to just keep getting better. We could lose a few more games and I could still feel like we're getting better. I think we're starting to see things that we didn't have in the beginning of the year."

It will be interesting to see where it goes from here, beginning Monday night.