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Friday, June 21, 2024
The Observer

Irish women’s basketball collects ACC hardware

On Tuesday afternoon, the ACC announced in a press release its 2022 women's basketball award winners. Unsurprisingly for a squad that had captured their first conference title since 2019 earlier in the week, the honoree list was covered in blue and gold. From a piece of ACC history to yet another special freshman, Notre Dame’s five selections brought it all to the table this season.

Niele Ivey — ACC Coach of the Year

The Coach of the Year award was generally considered a two-horse race between Ivey and Duke head coach Kara Lawson. Both coaches had standout resumes on the year. Lawson won the head-to-head matchup between the two, while Ivey won the conference title outright, becoming the first Black female head coach to win an ACC championship. Likely influencing the vote was Ivey saving her best coaching performance of the year for last, orchestrating a ten-point second-half comeback on the road against Louisville with a largely depleted roster. 

Ivey’s greatest feat this year has been her handling of injuries. She navigated the Irish through the back half of a championship campaign as they lost graduate student guard Dara Mabrey for the season, graduate student center Lauren Ebo for two weeks and sophomore guard Olivia Miles for the final game. The Irish transformed under Ivey’s guidance following the loss of the team’s best pure shooter in Mabrey. They were able to redefine themselves from being a hot-scoring team that looked to win shootouts to a defensively-excellent and gritty unit.

Olivia Miles - All-ACC First Team

Though Miles’ future this season remains unclear in the wake of her injury on Sunday against Louisville, it’s impossible to deny her body of work over the course of the season. Miles led the Irish on a per-game basis in points, rebounds and assists. She looked every bit the part of the all-action floor general she needed to be on a younger and shorter Notre Dame roster than in years prior. With a penchant for flair, Miles sparked social media buzz dozens of times throughout the year as a result of her ability to slice defenses open with unparalleled court vision and passing range.

But despite the behind-the-back pass highlights and gaudy assist numbers, Miles' signature moment came on Feb. 16 in the form of a shot. The sophomore kept the Irish’s title hopes alive on a tense Thursday night at Purcell Pavilion, canning a buzzer-beating jumper to seal a victory over Louisville. Her game-winner against the Cardinals capped off a mammoth all-around performance. Miles ended the night with 18 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. Never shying away from the spotlight, Miles led Notre Dame in points in two of the team’s three top-ten matchups this year and led the Irish in assists in all three.

Sonia Citron - All-ACC First Team

Few players in the country had the challenge of taking on as significant and fluid of a role as Citron this season, but the sophomore flourished in her unique situation. With Notre Dame only carrying three nominal point guards and just two traditional front-court players (with those numbers dropping to two and one during games in which the Irish were without Mabrey and Ebo), Ivey relied on the sophomore guard to play an active role in just about every aspect of the offense. 

Every time Ivey added more to Citron’s plate, she responded. When Mabrey went down, Ivey called on Citron to take the mantle of Notre Dame’s go-to threat from beyond the arc. She turned into just that. When Miles was ruled out of the Louisville game, Ivey turned to Citron to take over ball-handling duties. She answered the call to the tune of 17 second-half points as the Irish roared back to win a crucial game. Also serving as one of Ivey’s most reliable defenders and rebounders, Citron took the “jack-of-all-trades” phrase often used to describe her game to a new level this season.

Maddy Westbeld - All-ACC Second Team

Westbeld added to her trophy case after receiving First Team honors two years ago. Despite experiencing a streaky start to the campaign, she was exactly what the Irish needed down the stretch. The junior forward reached double figures six times and recorded two double-doubles in the season’s final month. During interior presence Ebo’s five-game absence, Westbeld nabbed at least seven rebounds four times. After the Irish lost Dara Mabrey’s three-point stroke, she hit a triple in all but two games.

As made evident by the 15.2 points per game she averaged during her freshman year, Westbeld’s potential is sky-high. She was the only Irish player to score 25 points in a game this season before Citron’s 27-point explosion on Sunday. Amazingly, the best might still be on the way for Westbeld. In her six-game postseason career, she has posted 16.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Westbeld enters the ACC tournament as Notre Dame’s leading shot-blocker with 1.3 rejections per contest.

KK Bransford - ACC All-Freshman Team

The accolades have been flooding in this week for Bransford. The freshman guard locked up her first ACC Rookie of the Week honor and earned the USBWA National Freshman of the Week award to boot. Her performance on Sunday at Louisville was the icing on the cake of a magnificent rookie season. Playing just down the Ohio River from her hometown of Cincinnati, Bransford took center stage in Notre Dame’s ACC-clinching win. With Miles injured early, Bransford played 30 minutes for just the second time all season and took full advantage. Her 14 points on a season-high seven made field goals helped push the Irish to the finish line.

Her late-season output stabilized a shorthanded Notre Dame team during the heat of conference play. In the eleven games after Mabrey’s injury, Bransford scored in double figures seven times. The experience she gained as a starter during that stretch may come in handy moving forward, as Miles’ status remains in question. Bransford ends the regular season averaging 8.5 points per game on a 50.3 field goal percentage.