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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024
The Observer

Post: Ivey needed to be near-perfect Sunday to capture ACC. She was.

Notre Dame women’s basketball was always bound to have an uniquely small rotation this year. That’s what happens when you only carry ten scholarship players.

Ivey was well aware of the smaller roster she was constructing, placing an emphasis on quality trumping quantity in her squad. The Irish bench might have been shorter than that of most of their opponents, but Ivey had no interest in stringing along players she couldn’t trust.

Sunday afternoon, that trust was tested in a major way. Notre Dame had already taken their fair share of lumps with injuries heading into their season-ending clash with Louisville. Starting guard Dara Mabrey, the longest-tenured member of the roster, was lost for the season with a knee injury. Graduate student center Lauren Ebo, the only other player on the roster with senior-level eligibility, battled a foot ailment for most of February.

Between Mabrey’s absence and Ebo’s reduced minutes, Ivey was already scraping by with her rotations when disaster struck. Oliva Miles, the Irish’s National Player of the Year contender point guard, crumpled over in agonized pain midway through the second quarter at the KFC Yum! Center. She was helped off the court with what was later revealed to be a knee injury. 

For the final two minutes of the second frame, a shell-shocked Notre Dame team looked outgunned. A quick Louisville run put the Cardinals up nine heading into halftime. The Irish needed a master class from their coach as much as their squad over the final 20 minutes to claim victory as well as their first outright ACC title since 2019.

Ivey didn’t just need to beat one of the ACC’s better teams at a venue Notre Dame hadn’t won at since 2016. She needed to do so with an almost-unheard of lack of squad depth. To truly understand the scope of Ivey’s work in the second half, it’s important to take stock of exactly who she had available to use coming out of the break.

In total, the Irish had eight healthy scholarship players. Two of those players were freshmen — including Cassandre Prosper, an early enrollee who was playing high school basketball as recently as this December. Two more of those players averaged under 10 minutes per game and had previously been used almost exclusively in a rotational role. Most concerningly, Ivey was now without both starting members of her backcourt, causing her to place ball-handling duties upon jack-of-all trades forward Sonia Citron.

The choice to let Citron run the offense rather than thrust backup point guard Jenna Brown into a massive role proved to be the first major decision Ivey got right on a day where she’d have to nail many. The 6’1’’ Citron immediately proved a mismatch for the Louisville defense, who struggled to stop her from getting downhill and to the rim once she got across the halfway line. Citron exploded for 17 points in the second half, 10 of which came from the free throw line. Most of those free throw points resulted from situations where the Cardinals had resorted to fouling Citron because she had driven into the paint so effectively.

The front court was another area where Ivey had to be spot on in her game management to get the Irish a win on Sunday. Even though Notre Dame had both their usual post players healthy enough to play Sunday — though its still unclear if Ebo was fully healthy or simply healthy enough — Ivey had to deal with a different numbers game: fouls. The officials were whistle-happy on both teams all afternoon, with both squads combining to shoot 50 total free throws. As the game wore on both Ebo and Watson (as well as Cassandre Prosper and KK Bransford) found themselves one foul away from leaving the contest.

Watson picked up her fourth with five minutes left in the game. Ebo earned hers with two minutes left. Ivey knew she couldn’t afford to play without at least one of her two tallest players in a game where Notre Dame was already being out-rebounded. But, she also knew losing one of Ebo or Watson to a foul-out could be a death-blow to an already paper-thin rotation. 

Her management of their minutes had to be near-perfect. She would have to effectively get both involved, but without stretching their minutes to the point where Louisville could target one of them and force a fifth foul. 

Ivey subbed in Ebo for Watson (or vice-versa) three times alone in the fourth quarter. It was the only form of substitution Ivey made for the final ten minutes of the game. Ebo played six minutes of the final frame. Watson played four. They combined for five rebounds and an assist as the Irish ended the game on a 25-19 run. And neither of them fouled out.

Sunday also proved to be as much of a story of Ivey’s player development as was her in-game coaching. Notre Dame’s best players over the final ten minutes after Citron were almost certainly the freshman duo of Prosper and Bransford. The pairing combined for over half of the Irish’s fourth quarter points, as well as three rebounds and an assist.

The growth Ivey has sparked in the rookie tandem over the course of 2022 has been remarkable. In the first few games of the season, Bransford looked all the part of a lone freshman on a squad full of returning veterans. Over Notre Dame’s first three games, Bransford didn’t play more than 20 minutes once and shot a combined 3-13 from the floor. 

On Sunday, Bransford played 20 minutes in the second half alone. She finished the game 7-11 from the floor as Notre Dame’s second leading scorer in a game where it desperately needed a second option to emerge. The outing was the latest in a string of strong performances for Bransford, who under Ivey’s tutelage seems to grow more and more confident by the day.

And as impressive as Bransford’s evolution has been, Prosper might be the even more remarkable testament to Ivey’s ability to develop talent. The 6’2’’ combo guard joined the Irish squad in December, a midseason boost to a roster that needed depth. And in her first outings, unsurprisingly for a player still of high school age, Prosper struggled. She played just three minutes on her debut against Miami. Against Florida State — the first top 25 team Prosper played more than 10 minutes against — she shot 0-9.

But, Ivey also kept working with Prosper for her to be ready for the next big moment. Even when she’d show more signs of her inexperience — such as an 1-8 outing from the field in a crucial game against Duke — Ivey kept on allowing her to work through the adjustment to the next level. And on Sunday, that willingness to commit to the adjustment period paid off. Prosper provided 11 points, four rebounds and two assists against the Cardinals, including a pair of free throws with six seconds left to clinch victory for the Irish. 

In many ways, Ivey’s work with Prosper is emblematic of her work with this Notre Dame squad as a whole this season. There have been struggles, some of which have been controllable and some of which have been out of Ivey’s hands. But ultimately, Ivey has shown that she values trust in her young squad above all else. And Sunday, that trust resulted in a championship.