Mike Berardino Indianapolis Star
Published 5:59 PM EDT Apr 3, 2019
SOUTH BEND – Sophomore center Mikayla Vaughn, proud vegan and devoted environmentalist, couldn’t wait to share her latest discovery with her Notre Dame teammates.
“I really try to be sustainable and I’m always kind of forcing that on the team,” Vaughn says. “I remember one time, I was like, ‘Hey guys, I just found out, if everyone in the country just stops eating meat for one day a week, it’s like taking 70,000 cars off the street for a year!’ “
To which graduate forward Brianna Turner answered: “Yeah, and if everyone shuts up for a day, we can save a bunch of oxygen, too.”
Recounting that story before the defending national champions headed to Tampa for their seventh Final Four in nine seasons, Vaughn made it clear she took no offense at Turner’s deadpan response. By now the top-seeded Fighting Irish have come to expect such understated humor and world-weary wisdom from their veteran leader.
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“She’s very … witty,” Vaughn says. “She’s always making astute commentary.”
Even Kellye Turner, her mother, admits her only child has a unique worldview.
“How can I put it?” Kellye Turner says. “She has a different sense of humor.”
Quietly efficient on the court, with no wasted energy or extraneous movements, Turner has a gift for taking the edge off otherwise tense situations. She does this with a personality that stays remarkably even-keeled, no matter the stakes.
Maybe that’s why everybody calls her Breezy Bri, a nickname she picked up from her maternal grandmother Frances Jones back in Pearland, Texas, a south Houston suburb.
“We called her ‘Breezy’ from a young age,” says her mother, who played basketball at the University of Houston. “I call her ‘Slim’ sometimes, but ‘Breezy’ is the one that really stuck with her.”
Frances Jones, now 69, won’t be in Tampa this weekend with Kelly and her husband, Howard, who played basketball at Lamar. Instead, she will make the 150-mile drive east to Lake Charles, La., where she helps care for her mother, 92-year-old Mildred Ware, who still lives on her own.
Together, those two family matriarchs will proudly watch their progeny’s long-awaited return to the Final Four after missing all of last season following knee surgery.
“It’s just been a blessing,” Kellye Turner says. “We’re all so happy that she’s out there playing again.”
Deflecting attention is as much of a Turner specialty as blocking and altering shots, which she has done well enough to be named ACC Defensive Player of the Year three times.
After a second-round NCAA Tournament win over Michigan State, when Turner quietly moved past former All-American Ruth Riley atop the school’s career rebounding list, the 6-3 stalwart chose that as an opportunity to pay tribute to Riley, one of her long-distance mentors.
“Ruth Riley is the most humble person I’ve met in my whole entire life, in my 22 years of existence,” Turner said. “I haven’t met anybody like her. She’s just so down to earth. She’s so calm, she’s so patient.”
Turner, who showed up on campus in the summer of 2014 as the USA Today National High School Player of the Year and Gatorade National Female Athlete of the Year, credits Riley with helping her find her stride.
“I remember my freshman year, she used to practice with us and I was struggling,” Turner said. “She used to always help me out in practice: defensively, offensively. She always told me if I ever needed anything I can always text. I have her number. I’m just excited to be in the record books with her.”
With four more blocked shots, Turner will catch Riley atop the school’s career list for that stat as well. Already, she is part of the first starting five to reach 10,000 career points in Division I college basketball, men’s or women’s.
“I think it’s great for basketball, especially women’s basketball,” Turner says. “I think people sometimes downplay women’s sports. We get like the sexist ‘kitchen’ comments, the basically, ‘What are you doing?’ comments. It’s nice to have this kind of record be broken by a women’s team first.”
The family’s favorite statistic, however, is Notre Dame’s 127-9 record with Turner in the starting lineup. That’s a winning percentage of .934.
“When you hear it out loud, it’s unbelievable,” Kellye Turner says. “She has really been a contributor since Day 1, and it’s been wonderful to watch. The five years have gone by very fast.”
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Turner was 14 the first time she volunteered at the Houston Food Bank. She went with a group from her high school and soon was asking her mother to take her back, so they could prepare Lunch Buddy Packs for disadvantaged schoolchildren in the area.
Kellye and Howard Turner, both police officers, were pleased to see their daughter develop this sort of empathy at such an early age.
“She was just like, ‘Wow, I had no idea this was going on,’” Kellye Turner says. “I know it stayed with her, knowing that everybody doesn’t have that opportunity and that there are a lot of folks who are under circumstances that are beyond their control. She likes to give back.”
While playing college basketball and earning her degree in design, Turner has made time for community outreach programs along with her teammates. The Northern Indiana Food Bank has provided more chances for Turner to make an impact off the court, which she doesn’t take lightly.
In addition to packing lunches for young students, Turner has prepared food boxes for those in retirement communities who are unable to shop on their own.
“It’s really just puts in perspective some of the privileges I have, especially being here at Notre Dame,” Turner says. “You look at all the amenities we get. We just got a new practice facility this year. We just had practice and we have this whole spread of food out for us.”
She looks around the team lounge at Purcell Pavilion, where her talented teammates are happily snacking and joking while watching NCAA games on a wide-screen TV.
“Knowing that we’re always taken care of, it’s (important to remember) a huge percentage of Americans don’t live like this,” Turner says. “A lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck. It’s just continuously being grateful for what I have and the opportunities I’m given and not taking my situation for granted.”
Kellye Turner, a Texas state police captain, has had many in-depth conversations with her daughter about the world in general.
“We talk a lot, especially the last few years,” Kellye Turner says. “Of course, when you go to college you have an awakening, right, about a lot of things going on in the world. You get a better grasp of what your position is.”
Those Lunch Buddy Packs at the Houston Food Bank? They weren’t just for the kids in those classrooms on that particular day.
“Teachers would discretely put them in the backpacks so kids could take them home over the weekend,” Kellye Turner says. “If the teachers found out the kids had younger siblings, they would make sure they had enough to give the siblings, too.”
Being part of that process as a teenager helped shape Turner.
“We talked about how we’ve never had that problem,” Kellye Turner says. “For us, it’s a matter of what I would like to eat, not having enough to eat. Those types of things, with Brianna’s personality, they stick with her.”
Maybe that’s why you won’t catch Turner, even as Notre Dame closes in on a repeat championship, outwardly celebrating her exploits on the court.
Even while bottling up Alanna Smith, Stanford’s second-team All-American, in the Elite Eight, Turner just kept her head down and ran from one of the court to the other.
“She stays real calm,” Kellye Turner says. “There’s no finger wagging when she blocks a shot or jumps up and catches an alley oop. It’s just about business. I appreciate that on a lot of different levels. It’s just about the next play and what are we going to do to win?”
Turner, left off all three AP All-America teams, smiles when confronted with her “Breezy Bri” reputation, shyly admitting it was her idea to use it as her Twitter handle.
“I’d say I’m pretty chill, pretty relaxed,” she says. “Not too high, not too low. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m always like a five. I’m just like chilling.”
As a child, Turner would show emotion at times on the court, but gradually all of that disappeared from her comportment. It got to the point where her parents, as former college-level athletes, talked to her about it.
“We said, ‘Hey, you can get pumped up sometimes,’” Kellye Turner says. “And she’s like, ‘Well, I am pumped up — on the inside.’ It was nothing that came from us. Her dad and I, we get way more excited than she does, it seems like it. It’s just how she decided to carry herself on the court. It’s good for her.”
Perhaps that’s the secret to Turner’s remarkable consistency over her four healthy seasons at Notre Dame. Her annual scoring averages have ranged from 13.8 to 15.3, while her rebounding averages have stayed even more narrow: from 7.1 to 7.9.
That steady production, along with her basketball IQ and athletic frame, have made Turner an intriguing prospect for the April 10 WNBA Draft.
“Her upside is tremendous,” ESPN women’s basketball analyst LaChina Robinson said this week on a media conference call. “She’s getting up and down the floor very well despite coming off that injury. We’re seeing her shot-blocking ability. If she gets with the right team, she can make a major impact.”
On and off the court.
Follow Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino. His email is [email protected]
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