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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024
The Observer

One convincing, one close victory bring Irish to Sweet 16

One year ago, Notre Dame women’s basketball suffered a heartbreaking loss in the Sweet 16. The Irish literally and figuratively threw away their chances at reaching the Elite Eight with a last-second turnover that sealed a 66-63 loss to North Carolina State. It was the type of loss that sits with a team long after the final buzzer. The type of loss that teams dedicate their next postseason to avenging.

Well, that next postseason is here for Notre Dame. The Irish earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the right to host their first two games at Purcell Pavilion. Those two games took place last weekend, and the Irish did enough to give themselves the chance to write a different Sweet 16 story.

Unlike last year, when the Irish played a surprisingly close Round of 64 game against UMass before torching Oklahoma in the Round of 32, Notre Dame’s margin of victory followed a more traditional route this time around. The Irish improved to 15-2 at home this season after winning an 82-56 blowout against No. 14 seed Southern Utah and squeaking past No. 11 seed Mississippi State 53-48. For the second straight year, and 12th time in the last 14 seasons, the Irish survived the opening weekend of March Madness.

Notre Dame’s tournament opener Friday was arguably more lopsided than the already convincing 26-point margin of victory would indicate. The Irish began the game on a 16-0 run and led by double digits for the rest of the contest. Notre Dame thrashed Southern Utah down low, winning the points in the paint battle 50-18 and collecting a gaudy 21 offensive rebounds to the Thunderbirds’ seven. Graduate student center Lauren Ebo delivered one of her best games in an Irish uniform, racking up a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double. Junior forward Maddy Westbeld paced the Irish with 20 points while also chipping in a pair of steals and blocks.

Mississippi State was able to give the Irish a much greater challenge, however. Sunday’s game was not decided until the closing seconds, with two late free throws from sophomore guard Sonia Citron, allowing the Irish to take a deep breath after a nail-biting contest. The game was even with less than four minutes to play, but several Irish players came through with some clutch foul shooting to pull away. Ebo and Westbeld once again led the way, combining for 33 rebounds while Ebo tallied another double-double.

The undermanned Irish will have their hands full against No. 2 seed Maryland in Saturday’s Sweet 16 matchup. The Terrapins handed Notre Dame one of their two home losses with a 74-72 buzzer-beating victory Dec. 1. Perhaps the season-ending injuries to sophomore guard Olivia Miles and graduate student guard Dara Mabrey will catch up to the Irish then. But it mattered for Notre Dame to get back to this stage after last year’s shocking finish. Now, they can focus on what matters to them right now, injured or not: finding a way past Maryland to reach the first Elite Eight of head coach Niele Ivey’s tenure.