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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

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Hidalgo, Westbeld notch double-doubles as Irish power by No. 5 Virginia Tech 71-58

It may have been a Leap Day, but March Madness arrived early on Thursday night in Purcell Pavilion. 

Notre Dame had won home games this season – nine, to be exact. But none brought the standing-ovation, pulsating energy that had punctuated monumental victories over UConn in 2022 and North Carolina State in 2021.

With 1:26 remaining in the fourth quarter, freshman guard Hannah Hidalgo slipped in an entry pass to junior guard Sonia Citron, who laid the ball into the hoop to effectively put a potentially season-defining win for the Irish in the books. The crowd at Purcell rose to its feet in applause, the type of clamor reserved for the collective feeling of relief that comes with a team reaching touching distance of crucial home win. Hidalgo punctuated her signature flex celebration with a yell of jubilation before extending her arms to the sky and motioning to the rafters for more noise. 

She would get her wish, with the atmosphere in South Bend growing to a fever pitch as Notre Dame closed out a 71-58 win over No. 5 Virginia Tech. Notre Dame, in search of a statement heading down the stretch of the season, won its first top-five game in 452 days.

Donning green jerseys, Notre Dame lived up to its unique look by breaking its recent streak of slow starts in big games. The Irish ended the first quarter leading 17-16 in a solid but unspectacular start.

In the second frame, though, the Irish found some fireworks. Notre Dame entered the halftime break having opened up a 8-point lead, in large part thanks to the duo of Hidalgo and senior forward Maddy Westbeld. Heading into the break, the pairing accounted for 78% of the home squad’s points.

While a high-powered Irish offense has made headlines all season, their defensive output won the day on Thursday night. Drawing a matchup with back-to-back ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley, Westbeld and her front court compatriots dug in. Despite a three-inch height discrepancy, Westbeld and the rest of the Irish defense held Kitley to just 12 points on 4 for 11 shooting.

After the game, Westbeld commented on how she won the matchup in the low post.

“Playing physical with her [was key],” she said. “We’ve done that in the past; it’s been successful in the past.”

Westbeld mentioned that she tried “keeping that same tone, making [Kitley] work for everything.”

Notre Dame’s backcourt didn’t slouch on the defensive end either. Virginia Tech guard Georgia Amoore entered the game averaging 7.6 assists per game. The Irish held her to two. Amoore would score 20 points to lead the Hokies, but on just a 29% shooting split from the field.

While Hidalgo and Westbeld dominated the first half, Citron took over in the second. It took her 20 minutes and 10 seconds to sink a shot, but she poured in 21 points over the game’s final 20 minutes, including eight of Notre Dame’s final nine points to ice the victory.

Citron said her mentality allowed her to flip the switch coming out of the halftime break and find her groove.

“I was honestly just trying to cheer on my teammates and not think about it at all, and just know it and just play my game.”

All told, Citron, Westbeld and Hidalgo combined for 63 of Notre Dame’s 71 total points. The trio accounted for the only three players to score in the second half for the home side. Hidalgo and Westbeld each posted double-doubles – Hidalgo amassed 23 points and 12 rebounds while Westbeld notched 19 and 10 in the same categories.

It was a busy night across the ACC, one with implications for both teams on the court on Thursday night. Notably, in an overtime thriller, North Carolina State took down Syracuse – and with the Orange’s loss, Virginia Tech clinched the regular season ACC title.

Head coach Kenny Brooks learned about the feat from a reporter in the postgame press conference. Even on a disappointing night, Brooks was proud of his players and their accomplishment.

“On a night where you lose a basketball game but gain a championship, it’s huge,” he said.

Despite the loss, Brooks noted Notre Dame’s storied history in women’s college basketball helped make the moment more special.

“To be told we won the outright regular season championship at Notre Dame means a lot,” said Brooks. “Because when I got here, Notre Dame was the staple…You were in awe of their teams…Five, six, seven years later, we’re the regular season champion. That means a lot.”

With Thursday night’s win, Notre Dame continued to fight another day in the ACC. The team is currently tied for third. The top four teams in the ACC earn a double bye in the conference tournament, advancing straight to the quarterfinals next Friday. 

On Sunday, the Irish will host Louisville, who is currently tied with Notre Dame for third in the league. Sunday’s winner will take home an extra bye, an advantage that would afford an Irish team currently playing with just seven regular rotation members some much-needed rest.

Louisville comes to South Bend fresh off a 15-point win against Florida State. The Cardinals beat the Irish a month ago in Kentucky. Notre Dame shot just 11% from three during the loss but have rebounded with five wins in six games since.

Sunday’s action tips off at 2 p.m. on ESPN. 

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