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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

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Answering three key questions as Notre Dame begins NCAA Tournament run

Notre Dame women’s basketball, a No. 2 seed, hosts a Round of 64 game this weekend

Notre Dame women’s basketball will face No. 15 Kent State at Purcell Pavilion this Saturday. Ahead of Saturday’s 2:15 p.m. tip-off, Senior Sports Writers Jake Miller and J.J. Post answer three key questions about the team.

Wait. The Irish team that had its worst home loss in 20 years won the ACC? How did that happen?

Miller: Just like no one reason caused the Irish to get clobbered earlier this season, no one reason propelled them to victory. However, I would be lying to ignore Notre Dame’s luck in Greensboro. While the Irish played three ranked teams, each of their opponents found themselves in difficult scenarios. Louisville was picking up every foul imaginable, ending with 21 on the day. They also had 20 turnovers, many which were self-inflicted.

The next day, Notre Dame beat a Virginia Tech team missing Elizabeth Kitley — a revolutionary player. Notre Dame capped the weekend by beating a NC State team that shot 35% from the field and only made three 3-pointers. Sure, Notre Dame played nice zone defense and caused bad looks, but ultimately, consider it a blessing that all three opponents faced omens with major impacts.

Enough with the bad, though. Notre Dame found its way in the zone. With senior center Kylee Watson out, Notre Dame used its mobility to its advantage, dashing all the way around the court to try to force teams to shoot tough shots like jumpers and inefficient threes. On the offensive side, the Irish got outstanding production from every player on the court. Teams let senior forward Maddy Westbeld shoot the ball, and she gave them every reason not to on the following possession. When she goes off from deep — like she did against NC State (3 of 7) — there’s not much an opposing defense can do.

Post: A combination of factors have played a role in Notre Dame’s late surge. Junior guard Sonia Citron has been perhaps the most underrated X-factor. Citron re-entered the lineup after a lower-body injury in January, but that return appeared to be more out of necessity than her being 100% ready. The usually hyper-reliable junior struggled to meet her lofty standards of efficiency and seemed a step behind her top speed in the first games she played after injury.

But Citron looks to be back to full health now, and it’s been a boon for the Irish. Over her last 10 games, the combo guard is averaging 17 points per game and has often been responsible for guarding opposing team’s best scorers when Notre Dame plays man-to-man defense. The Irish’s record over the course of this 10 game stretch where Citron has thrived? 9-1.

Notre Dame’s team defense has also buckled down over the closing stretch of the season. Since a double-overtime track meet saw the Irish and Florida State combine for 192 points in Tallahassee, Notre Dame has held teams to 60 points or fewer in seven of their last nine games. That’s a trend that will play in March. As Jake mentioned, zone looks have been key in the past several weeks for the Irish. Initially more of a unique wrinkle Ivey would occasionally deploy to throw opponents off their game, Notre Dame’s zone has slowly evolved into a fundamental game plan staple. 

How can the Irish sustain their success in Saturday’s matchup with Kent State?

Miller: Notre Dame is a more athletic team that should take advantage of its speed and ball-handling. Watch for Citron and freshman guard Hannah Hidalgo to take advantage of their wheels to move the ball down the court, simply beating defenders that can’t keep up with them.

On defense, Kent State plays a variety of messy zones that often (unintentionally) become a man. Notre Dame knows how to break a zone, though. Watch for graduate guard Anna DeWolfe to play a big role in the kick out game. I assume that Notre Dame will be able to drive and score, but if not, they can still drive to draw defenders away from the corners. Then, the Irish should use outlet passes (to someone like DeWolfe or Citron) to try a secondary or tertiary look from three.

Funny enough, Kent State will play a similar offense on their side of the court, but they are much slower and don’t shoot as well from deep (31.8% vs 35% for Notre Dame). If any Kent player is hot, watch for Hidalgo to get tasked to spy and guard them close, limiting exterior opportunities. 

Post: Unfortunately for the Irish, the team’s aforementioned zone lost a key staple in Watson. Watson’s fluidity and shot-blocking ability made her an anchor down low for a Notre Dame defensive scheme that requires constant lateral movement, and her presence will be missed dearly.

Ironically, the Irish will now likely lean into their zone more than ever to effectively mitigate Watson’s absence this weekend. Notre Dame has two traditional post players on their roster, neither of whom have shouldered as heavy of a load as they’ll now have to bear in the NCAA tournament. Both have substantially less experience in the defensive situations that Watson was often relied upon in over the course of the regular season. Ivey’s zone, particularly when Westbeld is positioned as close as possible to the basket, should offer some reprieve on the stamina of junior forward Natalija Marshall and senior forward Becky Obinma, tasking them with guarding a finite area and not a specific player.

If Notre Dame advances to the Round of 32, what is the team’s ceiling at that point?

Miller: Without a true center, Notre Dame is going to eventually struggle when teams have players line up in the lane and play iso-ball. The Irish can trap, but even then, if the officials allow for a physical game, there’s only so much that Westbeld and Marshall can do. In my opinion, Notre Dame won’t be leaving South Bend again this year. 

Post: In terms of ceiling, even without Watson (or any of the other three contributors the Irish currently have sidelined due to injury), Notre Dame has the pure offensive firepower to compete with just about any team in the country. Unfortunately, the No. 1 seed the Irish drew to presumably face in the Elite Eight is an exception to that rule. South Carolina is 33-0 and already beat Notre Dame by 29 points in the season’s opening game.

Make no mistake, the Irish squad that got stomped by the Gamecocks is not the same one that enters the NCAA tournament. But with the team operating with a rotation that goes seven players deep (and often looks more like six), it’s difficult to see Notre Dame closing such a wide opening day gap against a team as consistent as South Carolina have been. Until that matchup though, while contending in the post without Watson will be a struggle, the trio of Hidalgo, Citron and Westbeld have the ability to ensure the Irish have, at minimum, a reasonable chance in every game they play.