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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer


‘Ignited’ Notre Dame women’s basketball uses dominant third quarter to notch fifth-straight win

The victory over No. 22 Louisville gives the Irish back-to-back wins over ranked opponents heading into the ACC tournament

Hannah Hidalgo can’t stop growing.

Perhaps not physically, as Notre Dame’s diminutive but ever-ascendent star point guard still stands just 5-foot-6. But her performances seem to find new rungs to climb weekly.

A freshman wall was long seen as something of an inevitability for Hidalgo — such is the nature of having your first career game be a 31-point outing against a top-10 opponent. It was clear that she was destined for stardom, but surely some regression to the mean of rookie play would emerge eventually, right?

As of early March, it still hasn’t. Irish women’s basketball have found their stride heading into the postseason, to the tune of five consecutive wins and back-to-back victories over ranked opposition. And right at the center of the action, as the engine of the offense and spark plug of the defense, is Hidalgo.

Twenty-six points. Eight rebounds. Six steals. Four assists. Forty minutes of game time. And one huge win to seal an ACC Tournament double bye for Notre Dame.

Just weeks earlier, the Irish’s season seemed to hang in a precarious position. Niele Ivey’s squad had lost two of three, including an embarrassing, unprecedented home loss to North Carolina State. Notre Dame meandered off the court that night looking to be without answers for how the ACC’s top-ranked offense completely lost their groove. 

On Sunday, the Irish walked off the court against Louisville slowly once more, but not with their heads down. They wanted to savor their exit from a court soaked with the sweat of a hard-fought, statement win. They wanted to enjoy every remaining second of an electric Purcell Pavilion crowd that rose to its feet to give the home squad a standing ovation as they dribbled out the clock. One final hurrah for a team that remains in the dark as to whether they’ll host any further home games in the NCAA tournament.

Contrary to the final scoreline, Sunday was not a game Notre Dame controlled from the get-go. In fact, the Irish spent much of the first half trailing in a one-score game, before a late Louisville run gave the Cardinals a seven-point halftime lead.

Then came the third quarter.

The Irish started hot, scoring three quick buckets to tie the game, and sustained that firepower over a 10 minute stretch that buried the visitors. Notre Dame poured in 30 points in the third quarter, highlighted by a remarkable 19-1 run that included a five minute Louisville scoring drought.

After giving up 36 first-half points, the Irish buckled down to allow just 22 in the second half. Louisville couldn’t find their rhythm against a Notre Dame zone defense that pounced on every opportunity to trap and double, turning the ball over 11 times and shooting just 21% from the field over the game’s final 20 minutes. The Cardinals went without a field goal for nearly four minutes to end the contest as the Irish padded their lead, part of a perpetual quest to rack up always-useful style points for the NCAA tournament seeding committee. The ovation from the crowd as the Purcell buzzer rang on Notre Dame’s biggest win against a ranked opponent this season wasn’t a bad perk either.

The Irish’s formula for success, at one point a work in progress, is now beginning to become etched in stone. Hidalgo relentlessly spearheads the offense and defense. Junior guard Sonia Citron adds tallies in basically every column of the stat sheet. And for senior forward Maddy Westbeld, who’s now had 10-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in three of her last four games, double-doubles are starting to become predestined.

Notre Dame’s big three, as Ivey referred to her star trio after Sunday’s game, can almost always be relied on for production. But for the Irish to not just win, but thrive against a top-25 opponent, as they did against Louisville? They need contributions from everyone on the roster.

Kylee Watson had perhaps her best game of the season against the Cardinals, posting 10 points and four rebounds. More importantly, she refused to be moved on defense down low, putting forth a stalwart effort that included a highlight-reel block on Louisville forward Nyla Harris in the third quarter.

After the game, Ivey gave plaudits to Watson and the rest of the Irish front court for rising to the occasion.

“She was so locked in defensively,” Ivey said. “The last game, [I] thought that Louisville did a great job on the boards. Our posts stepped up tonight. They did a great job of defending their post. They were intentional about their defense. I thought [Watson’s] block ignited us.”

Elsewhere, the Irish got their usual key rotational production from the team’s secondary guard platoon of KK Bransford and Anna DeWolfe. Neither DeWolfe or Bransford have been volume scorers often this season — averaging 8.9 and 7.3 points per game this season, respectively — but both bring an invaluable change of pace both on and off the ball that affords the always-hard charging Hidalgo some rest. They may not stuff the stat sheet, but Notre Dame are markedly better off when Bransford and DeWolfe are on their game.

Sunday’s game was a physical one, the mark of an ever-growing rivalry between two of the ACC’s top programs. The teams combined for 37 fouls and 39 free throws. Fifteen different players between the two teams received at least one whistle on the day, and seven received at least three. But the Irish, usually more well-known for their high-flying offense than robust physicality, didn’t back down. 

“We expect that. We prepare for that,” said Hidalgo, who attempted a season-high 15 free-throw attempts. “But we have a great trainer, so we’ll be OK. She’ll take care of us.”

Having clinched the fourth seed in the ACC Tournament with the win, Notre Dame will now also enjoy an extra day of rest before their quarterfinal contest. For Sonia Citron, though, more important than any method of postgame recovery is the final score.

“You feel a lot less sore when you win,” she said.