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Friday, April 12, 2024
The Observer

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Irish power past Ole Miss to reach third consecutive Sweet 16

Notre Dame extends win streak to 10 with 71-56 takedown in Round of 32

Natalija Marshall left the court with 16 seconds remaining on Monday.

It wasn’t due to a foul out, though the senior forward had amassed four. It wasn’t because head coach Niele Ivey wanted a different player on the floor for the game’s final possession. It was because Ivey wanted her to savor the crowd roaring in appreciation for her performance in what might have been her final game at Purcell Pavilion.

It’s been a long road for Marshall in South Bend, with the fourth-year having battled through two season-ending injuries, the first of which caused her to miss a combined 22 months of official action dating back to high school. It wasn’t until her junior year that she made it through a full-season of college ball, settling into a spot role providing depth to the Irish front court. Until a few weeks ago, that was assumed to be the niche she would finish out her Notre Dame career in.

Then senior center Kylee Watson went down with an ACL tear, yet another stroke of bad injury luck for an Irish squad that can’t seem to catch a break. Suddenly Marshall wasn’t just a starter — she was a 30-minute-per game-cog in Notre Dame’s machine, which seems to only gain gumption as it plows through turmoil.

Marshall made the most of her time in the limelight in Monday’s 71-56 win against Ole Miss. Her performance wasn’t the flashiest — she only scored four points. Her three rebounds didn’t turn any heads either. But her reliable, fundamental play brought her closer to the spotlight than ever. She was a selfless creator, dishing out five assists. She refused to relent on defense, holding her ground against a Rebel squad that looked to attack her from the jump. 

After the game, Ivey showered praise on the senior forward, complimenting her work as an ‘unsung hero’ in a game where she played a career-high 36 minutes.

”Nat played with such poise,” Ivey said. “[She] does things that don't show up in the stat sheet. She doesn’t have to score 20 points. Her presence, just altering shots… She just takes advantage of the opportunity. She had five assists and zero turnovers, which I think for a post is huge. Not only does she have a defensive presence, she’s making things happen on the offensive end.”

Notre Dame doesn’t have the deepest roster, a casualty of the team’s aforementioned rash of injuries. But it seems to find a new unsung hero with each passing month. First it was graduate guard Anna DeWolfe, who transitioned from volume scorer at Fordham to jack-of-all-trades spark plug in South Bend. Then it was Watson, who emerged as the shot-blocking linchpin of Notre Dame's zone defense before she was lost for the season against Virginia Tech. And now it’s Marshall, a midrange maestro seemingly unlocking a new level of play every time she starts.

It’s the latest development in the continued evolution of a Notre Dame team that has combined star-level production and gritty role player resolve to create a lethal recipe good for 10 straight wins, a stretch that now includes an ACC championship and a third consecutive trip to the Sweet Sixteen.

At one point in time, there were concerns at the season’s midpoint that the Irish were doomed to spiral out of control. Everyone would have understood the reason. Notre Dame, saddled by the absence of star junior guard Olivia Miles as well as key freshmen Cassandre Prosper and Emma Risch, had entrusted rookie guard and extraordinaire Hannah Hidalgo with a remarkable load of responsibility. 

Hidalgo shined, but it was all but a given that growing pains would come. A mid-February stretch of three games where the Irish lost two and escaped another in double overtime prompted wonder if such growing pains would be the story of Notre Dame’s season. 

Such a forecast couldn’t have been further from the truth. Instead, senior forward Maddy Westbeld said the team’s mentality shifted following the team’s final contest in that ugly, three-game stretch, a brutal 59-43 home defeat to North Carolina State.

“We just needed to make sure we were all on the same page.” said Westbeld. “We know what this name on our chest means … It started with practice — everybody being a little tougher in practice and setting the tone. It took everybody from top to bottom.”

Bolstered by this toughness, the Irish buckled down, revealing a team that’s capable of winning now even as it sets the table for future success. With their season on the line at Purcell Pavilion, from the first buzzer to the last, the Irish held their poise.

Ole Miss earned the first lead of the game on their its possession. Nineteen seconds after that, the game would be tied. A little under a minute later, Notre Dame took its own lead. It wouldn’t look back.

The Irish set the tone from deep early. Junior guard Sonia Citron, Westbeld and DeWolfe all connected on 3-pointers in the first quarter. The Rebels stuck to their game plan, attempting to assert themselves underneath the basket. Such a game plan made sense, as Yolett McPhee-McCuin's tall, deep squad figured to be a unique threat down low to Notre Dame’s new staple 2-3 zone, particularly with the Irish down their top shot-blocker in Watson. Such a threat proved negatable. Marshall and Westbeld stood tall, continually trapping the Rebels' post players near the baseline. Notre Dame would go on to outscore Ole Miss in the paint, 32-24.

After the break, the Irish stayed in control. The Rebels shot better — particularly finishing the third quarter at a 7-for-15 mark from the field — but even after the Notre Dame lead dwindled to 15, transition points from Hidalgo helped the home squad stay in control.

Ole Miss would threaten again briefly in the fourth, this time cutting the deficit to 13, but the Irish once again found their top gear and cruised to the finish line. The cherry on top? Former walk-on and senior guard Sarah Cernugel entered the game with just over a minute to go, prompting a final standing ovation from an energetic matinee crowd at Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame played a clean game, winning the turnover battle 22-15. They fouled less and nearly doubled the Rebels in the assist category (17-9). Ivey had plenty to smile about when speaking to the media postgame, with the fourth-year head coach putting emphasis on the season-long growth that brought the Irish to this point.

“We've had a lot of highs and lows, a lot of adversity. And to see this group just find a way to come together, to persevere through all of our adversity, is something special,” she said.

The Irish will now shift their attention to third-seeded Oregon State, who finished fourth in a loaded Pac-12. The Beavers’ resume against top teams includes a trio of losses to Stanford and a pair of defeats to USC, but also a notable win over UCLA in mid-February. Next weekend’s matchup will mark the third postseason clash of the school year between Notre Dame and Oregon State athletics in the last 365 days, with Irish football and men’s soccer both recording neutral site victories over the Beavers.

Now looking at another week of rest and preparation, the Irish will take the court in Albany, NY, once more in four days on Good Friday. If they take down Oregon State, Notre Dame would advance to an Elite Eight game already set for Sunday.