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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

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Maddy Westbeld's veteran influence continues to boost Notre Dame women's basketball

Having recently surpassed 100 games with the Irish, Maddy Westbeld has been crucial in making Notre Dame tick this season.

Entering the 2023-24 season, Notre Dame had just one player on the roster with more than one full season of starting experience in an Irish uniform.

Senior forward Maddy Westbeld.

Westbeld is something of an anomaly in Notre Dame’s usual starting lineup this season. Point guard Hannah Hidalgo is a freshman. Graduate student guard Anna DeWolfe and senior forward Kylee Watson are transfers from Fordham and Oregon. Combo guard Sonia Citron is a junior now in her second season as a full-time starter.

The piece that ties that first five together is Westbeld, who recently surpassed 100 career games for Notre Dame. 

The senior forward has seen a little bit of everything in her time with the Irish, one of just two players (along with fellow senior forward Natalija Marshall) to have been with Notre Dame from game one of the Niele Ivey era.

As a freshman, Westbeld made an immediate impact, averaging over 15 points per game as the Irish battled through an up-and-down, COVID-affected season. As conference rookie of the year and an All-ACC First Team honoree, Westbeld seemed primed for an even greater statistical outpouring as she entered her sophomore season.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Notre Dame improved as a team, winning 14 more games and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2022. In 2023, the Irish reached 27 wins and captured the ACC regular season title. As Notre Dame won more and more, Westbeld’s per-game averages in points, rebounds and assists all dropped from her rookie campaign. 

But this wasn’t for a lack of development. Westbeld was still growing as a player, but her role had changed. She was no longer a player the Irish had to force feed the ball to for offense. She was now a piece in a highly effective system. In her first career game, Westbeld was one of seven Notre Dame players to take the floor in a loss to MAC foe Ohio. In her sophomore season debut, Westbeld was one of 12 players to play for the Irish in a 36-point win over that same Ohio squad.

Now a senior, the Kettering, Ohio, native has struck a strong balance between individual statistical production and being part of a greater whole. Her points on a per-game basis have ticked up from 11.2 in 2023 to 13.9 this winter, with her shooting efficiency up across the board as well. She’s averaging a career-high in rebounds with 9.2 per game, leading the Notre Dame roster.

Westbeld’s increased impact on the boards has been the result of improved fitness and a subsequent ability to battle for an entire contest.

“[It’s] my aggressiveness,” Westbeld said when asked about her 14 rebounds in Notre Dame’s win over Pittsburgh. “I’m in a really good spot as far as my shape, just staying tip-top of my diet and my activity level when I play. I’ve really seen [that level] increase and have been able to compete for 40 minutes. Just doing the little things.”

Entering the back half of the team’s conference slate, a stretch of games in which the Irish will play four games against ranked opponents and six against teams with winning conference records, Notre Dame will need Westbeld at her best.

She may not be the flashiest scorer on the court, but she adds a veteran lead-by-example presence to the Irish lineup that is immeasurable in value. In Ivey’s eyes, Westbeld has “blossomed” as a leader with each year she’s been in South Bend.

“Us coming at the same time, she’s been an impact player from the beginning,” Ivey said. “Someone I leaned on right from the beginning. I put her to the fire as a freshman and she’s just gotten better every season…She’s kind of created her own way of leading. Everyone’s different, the way that they lead. It’s been incredible to watch her growth.”

The proof of concept for Westbeld being the key for Notre Dame to to unlock top-tier opposition is already there. The Irish have played two games against teams currently ranked in AP’s Top 15. In the season’s opener against South Carolina, Westbeld scored 12 points in 31 minutes of game action. Notre Dame lost by 29. On the road against UConn in January, however, Westbeld played all 40 minutes and dropped 23 points – and the Irish won by 15, their first win in Storrs in ten years.

The season has reached a point where it’s known what Notre Dame women’s basketball is and isn’t. They’re an exciting and well-balanced squad, one capable of winning with up-tempo offense or gritty team defense. What they are not, however, is an especially experienced squad. Just two players in the usual Irish game rotation have amassed more than 70 collegiate starts.

Against older squads, Westbeld will need to play an outsized role, both in terms of leadership and production. With nearly four years of reps under her belt, there’s little reason to expect she won’t be ready to answer the call.