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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer


Notre Dame women's basketball wins ACC Championship

Irish nip NC State 55-51, capturing first conference title since 2019.

The story of this Notre Dame women’s basketball team keeps evolving. 

For a moment it resembled a Greek tragedy, doomed for failure by injury misfortune. Perhaps at best it was an uplifting story of a team that persevered despite unexpected hardships, continually striving and competing, even when success seemed out of reach.

On Sunday, though, it revealed itself to be one of triumph. For the first time since 2019, the Irish were crowned ACC Tournament champions. 

A mere month ago, though, Notre Dame’s future looked grim. Sure, the team would make the NCAA Tournament, but amidst severe offensive droughts, countless mental lapses and poor post play on defense, the team appeared destined for sleepy second-round exit. After the team’s brutal home loss to North Carolina State on Feb. 15, head coach Niele Ivey was honest with the media: her team had not met expectations. Yet, she continued to sprout hope and optimism that the team and coaching staff would turn things around.

“You’ve got to be able to get to the next play,” she said. “There's always a next play mentality for everybody on our team.”

Twenty-four days and eight games later (the last five all against ranked teams), the team has gotten to the next play, and then some. They’ve turned it around, reversing a slump of poor play into a bandwagon that only seems to keep gathering speed as it surges into the NCAA Tournament.

The championship win wasn’t without tribulation. Without senior forward Kylee Watson, lost to yet another lower-body injury in the team’s semifinal win over Virginia Tech, Ivey relied on her zone to stop the Wolfpack in the low post. For that plan to work, Notre Dame needed to ensure it used the baseline to help with traps and that it didn’t accumulate unnecessary fouls. The team did both.

After an excruciatingly physical game on Friday, the team proved that it could keep its hands straight up, avoiding some of the unnecessary over-the-back fouls that have crept prior opponents closer to the bonus. 

And while the physicality didn’t show on the box score (with fouls), Notre Dame played its heart out. Not only was Watson out — graduate forward Becky Obinma, who has not played during the tournament, remained inactive due to a concussion. Senior forward Natalija Marshall and sophomore guard KK Bransford both received significantly more playing time than usual. Marshall left the game with three minutes remaining in the first half after accidental contact to the mouth and jaw area. She returned after the halftime break.

The contest started slow for both teams, as the Irish and Wolfpack both shot around 35% from the field. The shots weren’t going in early, but the teams kept their mistakes to a minimum. Both teams only had two turnovers in the first quarter. NC State led by a point going into the second.

Notre Dame's scoring didn't see much improvement in the second quarter. However, they gained an edge as NC State struggled with their shooting, scoring only seven points, their lowest for any quarter this season. The Irish also won the second-quarter rebound battle — nine to eight. Notre Dame went into the break up by six points.

However, it appeared that Notre Dame's second-quarter streak of good fortune had ended. NC State head coach Wes Moore finally figured out Notre Dame’s zone, and as the Wolfpack’s ball movement improved, so did its shooting. The Wolfpack shot 8 for 15 from the field, contributing from the bonus as well. To start the quarter, Notre Dame went two minutes and 20 seconds — and then another two minutes and 50 seconds — without a rebound. To make matters worse, the Irish picked up six fouls. Entering the fourth, both freshman guard Hannah Hidalgo and senior forward Maddy Westbeld had three personal fouls. NC State used a 8-0 scoring run to turn its 6-point deficit into a 2-point lead entering the fourth. 

Westbeld came alive in the fourth, poised for a breakout after netting only two points in the first half. With NC State still stacking the paint, Notre Dame was compelled to innovate in their search for quality shots. Hidalgo struggled to get into the lane, so Ivey decided to have Westbeld run all over the floor — including beyond the arc. It worked. She scored eight points in the fourth off of 2 for 3 shooting from deep.  

Additionally, Hidalgo was able to get to the basket when it mattered most. The freshman phenom scored on a scoop to put the Irish up by two with 1:28 left in the game. State turned the ball over on the next possession.

With one minute remaining, Notre Dame ran the entire clock down. Hidalgo drove to the basket with only a few seconds remaining on the shot clock. She missed. Racing down the court to tie the game, the Wolfpack saw their efforts thwarted when guard Saniya Rivers misfired a pass out of bounds, handing possession over to the Irish. Ivey called a timeout to advance the ball.

Up two with 31.9 seconds left (and a 30-second shot clock), Notre Dame inbounded the ball. NC State fouled, turning the shot clock off. The Wolfpack opted to foul thrice more, eventually putting junior guard Sonia Citron, the best free throw shooter in the ACC, at the free-throw line to shoot two shots. She made one, making it 54-51 Irish.

NC State called a timeout to advance the ball. Ivey stayed in a zone for most of the back half, moving to a man system for the last few seconds. Notre Dame had two fouls to give. It used one on the first pass, then backed off from there. NC State guard Aziaha James wound up from three, missing. Citron rebounded and passed the ball down the court to Hidalgo. She went to the line to shoot two. She made one, and the Irish led 55-51 with 10.5 seconds remaining and a foul to give.

It was all Notre Dame needed to clinch victory. The Wolfpack took one more shot, but after the miss, it chose not to play to the final zeros. Notre Dame’s win streak rolled on, this time with a hardware reward.

Hidalgo was awarded the Tournament MVP, adding to her impressive collection of accomplishments that (so far) include First Team All-ACC, ACC Rookie of the Year and ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

Wes Moore was complimentary of the Irish’s work, although disappointed in his team’s performance.

“Give credit to Notre Dame, defensively,” the Wolfpack head coach said. “We just struggled to score the ball… We were 3 for 17 from 3… You’d like to make some more of those.”

Ivey, on the other hand, was beyond elated. For someone who consistently radiates joy, envisioning an even more jubilant Ivey is challenging. For the first time in her tenure as head coach, fans saw that after the game.

“That is nothing but God. All glory goes to Him. I’m not for words,” she said to ESPN after the game. “It’s something I’ve dreamt of, and the fact that it’s manifested… I’m so grateful. I’m so happy… It shows the resilience of our team. They have so much grit, so much pride [and] so much passion.”

Notre Dame now has a work week of rest, review and practice before learning its postseason fate next Sunday evening. The Irish will surely host home games for the first two rounds; undoubtedly the team is a No. 4 seed or better. Buoyed by their ACC championship triumph, the question now looms: Can the Irish ascend to a No. 2 seed? Regardless, Notre Dame has earned favorable matchups in the weeks to come.

The NCAA Tournament will tip off on either Friday, March 22nd, or Saturday, March 23rd. All games are on the ESPN family of networks.