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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Led by backcourt stars, Notre Dame women's basketball is aiming high in 2023-24

Sophomores Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron react during Notre Dame's 76-54 win over Virginia on Sunday. / Mary Votava | The Observer

Notre Dame women’s basketball will play their first official game in the United States of the 2023-24 season on Sunday against NJIT with their eyes on making a statement.

The Irish began their regular season abroad on Monday afternoon in Paris and suffered a rude awakening. Notre Dame looked outgunned in France, conceding 100 points en route to a 100-71 loss to No. 6 South Carolina.

It’s unlikely that the lopsided margin of defeat is a sign of things to come, though. For one, the Gamecocks are one of the best teams in the country and their athletic roster and playstyle presented a major mismatch for the Irish. More importantly, Notre Dame was down several key players. Sophomore guard KK Bransford and graduate student forward Becky Obinma were kept out of the game by minor injuries. And the timetable on superstar junior guard Olivia Miles, who was missed the 2022-23 postseason with a knee injury last February, still remains unclear.

The one silver lining from the defeat in Paris was the emergence of what looks to be a new star in Miles’ place. Freshman guard Hannah Hidalgo was all over the floor for Notre Dame on Monday, accounting for over 40% of the Irish’s points. Hidalgo’s 31 points were the most ever by a Notre Dame freshman in their debut.

Irish head coach Niele Ivey will be banking on veteran experience accompanying the talented freshman in the backcourt, at least until Miles returns. Fordham transfer Anna DeWolfe made her Irish debut against South Carolina, but struggled to get involved offensively. The graduate student guard took just two shots in the game, finishing with two points.

Junior Sonia Citron is likely to be the central figure for Notre Dame alongside Hidalgo in Miles’ absence, with the combo guard serving as something of a Swiss Army knife for Ivey to use in the rotation. Capable of playing and guarding multiple positions, Citron served as the team’s makeshift point guard for long stretches of the postseason last year. Her 12 points against the Gamecocks tied senior forward Maddy Westbeld for second-most on the team.

While Westbeld may not lead the Irish in scoring (or any statistical category) this year, she might still be Notre Dame’s most important player. She’ll all but certainly be given the difficult task of aiding the team in more or less every facet of the game. Westbeld can be expected to both supplement the Irish’s post presence and stretch the floor on offense with her three-point shot. Ivey has shown in the past that she’s willing to get creative with the senior’s unique skillset, and Westbeld’s versatility will likely be even more vital for a squad short on frontcourt depth and lacking their starting point guard.

The frontcourt remains Notre Dame’s biggest question mark heading into their matchup with NJIT. Senior forward Kylee Watson played 25 minutes against the Gamecocks as the team's nominal center and couldn’t seem to find a rhythm on either end of the court. Watson finished the game 0-4 from the field, and Notre Dame’s post defense (playing shorthanded without Obinma) conceded 70 points in the paint. One of the few positives down low for the Irish on Monday was a nice game from senior forward Natalija Marshall, who scored eight points in spot minutes. If Obinma’s injury proves to be more long-term, Marshall will likely step up from her role last year of key reserve into a full member of the rotation.

One underrated X-factor for this Notre Dame squad is how much they’ll get out of their other two freshmen guards. Hidalgo looked the part of an instant star on Monday. Emma Risch and Cassandre Prosper, however, looked more like players in need of further development. Prosper, in particular, has flashed sky-high potential. Her defensive instincts and ability to attack the rim both helped her play a role in the Irish’s regular season ACC title as an early-enrolee last year. But her shooting (1-9 from the floor against South Carolina) is yet to come around. If Prosper or Risch (who came to Notre Dame in the offseason touted as a potential sharpshooter) can help space the floor, the Irish’s offensive ceiling rises considerably.

Ultimately, the return of Miles will likely be the factor that defines Notre Dame’s season. It’s unlikely that the frontcourt, even at full strength, will ever be much of a strength for the Irish. If Miles returns, though, and she can find immediate chemistry with Hidalgo, Notre Dame can pack an explosive one-two punch that could give Ivey’s squad the firepower to put together an NCAA Tournament run.

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