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Friday, April 19, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame women’s basketball battles adversity to end injury-plagued season with hardware

Olivia Miles Photo
Sophomore guard Olivia Miles dribbles around tight defense during Notre Dame’s game against Florida State on Jan. 26, 2023 at Purcell Pavilion.

Sophomore guard Olivia Miles dribbles around tight defense during Notre Dame’s game against Florida State on Jan. 26 at Purcell Pavilion.

For the first few months of the season, it was very reasonable to consider Notre Dame women’s basketball a Final Four contender. 

The Irish started the season 18-2, with a number of impressive benchmarks along the way. Niele Ivey’s squad handled perennial powerhouse UConn at Purcell Pavillion — not just beating the Huskies, but doing so comfortably. They went on the road and dispatched top-10 team and eventual Final Four participant Virginia Tech. Their only two losses in that stretch came to a pair of top 25 squads in North Carolina and Maryland. Notre Dame entered the back end of the season with momentum aplenty.

Unfortunately, injuries had other plans. Slowly but surely, Notre Dame’s core devolved to effectively a six-player rotation come the season’s end. Graduate student guard Dara Mabrey was lost for the season after an ACL tear against Virginia. With Mabrey, the Irish’s best shooter, out of the equation, the team’s spacing became severely limited — an Achilles heel consistently picked at by top-tier opponents.

Things went from bad to worse against North Carolina State. Before the game against the Wolfpack, it was revealed that graduate student center Lauren Ebo had suffered a foot injury. The injury would nag Ebo until the season’s end, ruling her out of several games and severely limiting her in several others. Without Ebo, Notre Dame’s post depth was whittled down to near-full game performances by junior forward Kylee Watson and increased spot minutes for junior forward Natalija Marshall. The Irish went 3-2 in the five games Ebo missed entirely. 

However, the most devastating — and final — blow was saved for Notre Dame’s final game against Louisville. Chasing a regular season conference title on the road against the Cardinals, Ivey lost sophomore point guard Olivia Miles to another ACL tear. If the Irish offense was running on fumes leading up to the Louisville game, the Miles injury handicapped it entirely. Miles was Notre Dame’s per-game leader in points, rebounds and assists. Her knack for impossible passes allowed her to have a superstar impact on slow-paced, defensive games.

And yet, despite of all these key injuries, Notre Dame still ended the season with hardware. Ivey pulled out all the stops in the second half against the Cardinals, and a makeshift Irish offense commanded by sophomore guard Sonia Citron stormed back to take home a victory and the ACC regular season title.

Ivey said that the win over Louisville was a crucial one for her squad, both an intangible victory over adversity and an actual win in a venue where Notre Dame has consistently struggled.

“We haven’t beat Louisville at Louisville in a very long time with some of my most veteran and healthy teams,” Ivey said. “That was a huge momentum booster for our program. It was a confidence booster for us. For me, in year three, to win [a regular season title] in a hostile environment like that was just unbelievable. So that was a really cool moment to be a part of.”

A key theme of the season for the Irish became young players stepping up down the stretch. Notre Dame’s squad was a young unit from the start, but the loss of Mabrey meant the Irish consistently rolled with three underclassmen in the starting lineup. Citron became the team’s de-facto point guard throughout the postseason. Freshman guard KK Bransford worked her way into the starting lineup as the season progressed. Early-enrollee freshman guard Cassandre Prosper slowly evolved from a highly raw player a month removed from high school games to a 20-minute-per-game option.

Freshman forward KK Bransford (14) celebrates with sophomore guard Sonia Citron (11) during Notre Dame’s game against Florida State at Purcell Pavilion on Jan. 26.

Relying on a young core wasn’t difficult for Ivey to do, even though her hand was somewhat forced.

“I’m not afraid to play young players,” Ivey said. “I play whoever’s ready. I play my best five. That number looks different every year, and I’m not afraid to give experience to our freshmen.”

Ivey’s faith in her younger options netted a short, but admirable, NCAA tournament run. The Irish didn’t struggle much against 14th-seeded Southern Utah, but the team faced a rock-fight against Mississippi State. Notre Dame’s young squad dug deep at Purcell and pulled out a gritty win to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Ebo was the hero on the day for the Irish. Ebo, the only player with senior eligibility or older status to play significant minutes against the Bulldogs, pulled in a game-high 18 rebounds, including five on the offensive glass.

Looking ahead to next fall, Ivey hopes further development from her returning players combined with new contributors should produce a squad with serious NCAA tournament ambitions. The Irish should return four of five opening-day starters. Bransford and Prosper improved by the game down the stretch and will have full off-seasons under their belts. A combination of graduate transfer Anna DeWolfe and incoming freshman Emma Risch should help solve the spacing and shooting issues that loom with Mabrey’s graduation. Becky Obinma, another graduate transfer, should add depth to the front court. And while Miles’ injury timetable remains unclear, the nation’s top ranked true point guard in the class of 2023 (per ESPNW) in Hannah Hidalgo should provide immediate cover.

In terms of specific goals? Ivey was non-committal about what she wants to accomplish next season. Ivey has a broad array of things she wants to achieve as coach, some of which appear on the scoreboard and some of which do not.

“I always just want to grow,” Ivey said. “I want to get better. The main goal is always to win the national championship. That’s always the goal. But being undefeated at home is [also] a goal for me. An ACC championship, and winning the conference tournament is a goal for me … Every year I’m trying to check a goal off my list, a list we create for the team. But I think intangibly I love that every year my culture is there. Player development is important to me and I feel like my players are growing … I’m blessed to work with such a great group. I’m excited for working with them and checking more boxes off.”