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Friday, April 12, 2024
The Observer

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Three key questions for Notre Dame's Sweet 16 showdown

The Irish will face Oregon State and pursue their first Elite Elite trip since 2019 on Friday

When Notre Dame meets Oregon State — whether that be on the pitch, the gridiron or the hardwood — you know it’s postseason time. Friday afternoon will bring the Irish and Beavers together once again for the Sweet 16, the third round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, at MVP Arena in Albany, New York.

The No. 2 seed in the Albany One Region, Notre Dame (28-6, 13-5 ACC) enters the showdown having won 10 consecutive games. That streak includes an ACC Championship and March Madness victories over Kent State and Ole Miss. Oregon State (26-7, 12-6 Pac-12), the region’s No. 3 seed, has defeated Eastern Washington and Nebraska to reach this point.

Projected as one of the closest matchups in the Sweet 16, Friday’s 2:30 p.m. battle between the Beavers and Irish could swing either way at any time. Senior sports writers Jake Miller and J.J. Post break down the contest and what it means for the season as a whole.

Oregon State has had a good — but not great — season. What do the Irish need to do to get past the Beavers?

Miller: Oregon State is a good, well-rounded team led by Raegan Beers, one of the nation’s top forwards. Beers is a beast in the paint, averaging a double-double at 17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, though, the Beavers’ offensive prowess doesn’t end there. They shoot the 3-ball well — especially Timea Gardiner, who is shooting 40% from deep on the year. 

Notre Dame has won 10 straight largely because of how good its 2-3 zone has been, especially in the paint. But if teams can shoot 3-pointers, 2-3 zones become ineffective and easy to break. Notre Dame may have to resort to man defense or another type of zone to come away victorious. 

That being said, Notre Dame also looks good on offense. Oregon State plays man defense and takes its time to set up. While Beers is an offensive mastermind, her defense is a bit of a letdown, as she lacks some of the speed and agility to compete with quasi-centers like senior forward Maddy Westbeld. Look for Notre Dame to control the speed and tempo of the game, playing fast ball and pulling the ball up the court as quickly as possible. Freshman guard Hannah Hidalgo against Beers will be a nice matchup in the paint, as Hidalgo thrives on driving and drawing contact. If Notre Dame can bait Beers into a couple of fouls, it has a legitimate chance to win the game. 

Post: I agree with what Jake said, but just for the sake of a different answer, I’ll go with keeping the shotmaking hot. As beneficial as it would be for the Irish to completely stifle the Beavers with their zone defense like they did Ole Miss, the odds aren’t great that it will happen again. Oregon State will have a full week to break down every trap and wrinkle head coach Niele Ivey sprung against the Rebels, and the Beavers possess the 3-point shooting to force Notre Dame to give more respect to the perimeter. 

The Irish offense put forth a strong showing against Ole Miss, one that went a little under the radar because of how effective the team’s zone was on the other end of the court. Ivey’s “big three” is starting to evolve into a trio that can go blow-for-blow with just about anyone in the country. 

But Hidalgo, Westbeld and junior guard Sonia Citron can’t be the only ones scoring. The Irish got underappreciated offensive contributions out of graduate guard Anna DeWolfe and senior forward Natalija Marshall on Monday. If Friday’s game turns into an offensive duel, Notre Dame will be a lot more confident if DeWolfe and Marshall are proving to be effective pieces that can be relied on to score efficiently.

Which Notre Dame player needs to have a great performance on Friday?

Miller: Maddy Westbeld. Westbeld has played lights-out as of late, serving as the team’s vocal leader and playing fantastic low-post defense. She is extremely hard to guard on offense, as she can play in both the paint and behind the 3-point line, requiring players to run around the court with her. 

Westbeld will need to play all 40 minutes for Notre Dame. When Beers is on the court, Westbeld also needs to be playing. But when Beers takes a break (as she commonly does — she only plays about 28 minutes per game), Westbeld also needs to be present to take a quick lead in her absence. Westbeld also cannot afford to foul. Even if she struggles defensively against Beers, which may be likely given the size difference (6-foot-4 versus 6-foot-3), Westbeld and Notre Dame can still come out victorious if she has a strong scoring day. 

Post: A huge reason why a long, deep Ole Miss squad that figured to be a terrible matchup for the Irish in the low post couldn’t find answers on offense was Notre Dame getting a tremendous performance out of Natalija Marshall. Marshall, usually better known for her silky midrange game than defensive prowess, refused to be backed down no matter how the Rebels tried to attack her (and they kept on trying all afternoon). 

Marshall (as well as Westbeld) wasn’t just assertive physically — she showed great IQ and defensive instincts in staying out of foul trouble despite her highest usage of the season. She’ll have a tough matchup in Beers, a different task than the Ole Miss attacks by committee. But if she’s able to give Ivey another solid 35-plus minute shift, Notre Dame’s chances of winning will be far better off for it.

If Notre Dame defeats Oregon State, what will you make of this season?

Miller: Is there a grade higher than A+? What Niele Ivey has done to turn this squad around is a miracle. After Christmas, the team looked so disoriented, made so many mistakes and did not show any signs of maturity. Now, through practice and patience, Ivey’s Irish are consistently locked in, playing smart, fast basketball that outpaces opponents. 

From day one of this year, this team lacked S-tier production in the post. Senior center Kylee Watson emerged as a good player, and she was playing lights-out basketball just minutes before her season-ending injury. But even if Notre Dame had both her, freshman forward Cassandre Prosper and junior guard Olivia Miles all in the game, the post defense simply does not level up to the likes of South Carolina or Texas. That will change next year with the arrival of Kate Koval. But for now, the Irish can only do so much. 

Regardless of what happens this weekend, Notre Dame fans should be thrilled at Ivey’s first ACC Championship. Next year, a Final Four and national championship are not only possible but likely. Forget football — this will be the team on campus to watch. I know the road to Cleveland, Ohio, is still ongoing, but is it okay if I start the drive to Tampa, Florida, for the 2025 Final Four?

Post: It feels ambitious for a team that “only” made the Elite Eight, but it truly has to be an A+. There was a decent chunk of Irish fans who – reasonably — wrote this season off as a punt when Miles was confirmed to have torn her ACL, an ailment that in retrospect always put her closer to a season-long absence than anyone ever wanted to admit. The optimistic still looked to the promise of the rest of the squad though, and Hidalgo quickly rewarded those who chose to look on the bright side. 

An ugly loss to South Carolina showed how far this team would need to come, but Hidalgo’s immediate impact gave the Irish reason to be excited about that evolution. What would follow over the next two months was a slew of additional injuries that hinged on plain ridiculous. Freshman guard Emma Risch was lost for the season. Prosper was lost for what would eventually become the season. Citron went down injured and missed nearly two months of action. Even Westbeld, a bastion of consistency, missed a game with a concussion. 

On-court results inevitably took a hit. After some initial bumps, the team seemed precariously on the verge of sliding much further in mid-February after losing two of three, including a defeat to Louisville where Hidalgo had to will Notre Dame in the second half to even stay in the contest and a humiliating defeat to NC State in which the Irish mustered up their worst offensive showing at Purcell Pavillion in two decades. 

Ivey promised answers — and delivered them. She rallied her team around a rebuilt defense that seemed to evolve with each game down the stretch. She found the right balance in harmonizing the offensive games of Hidalgo, Citron and Westbeld. And that’s not even speaking of the player who benefitted from Notre Dame’s late surge the most, Kylee Watson. Watson found her groove as an anchor in Ivey’s new zone defense and headed into the postseason on a hot streak of play that included some of her best all-around basketball in South Bend. 

And then, in one last twist of cruel fate, Watson became Notre Dame’s latest victim of injury luck, tearing her ACL in the ACC Tournament semifinal. How did Ivey respond? By buckling her squad down further. The very next day she coached her way to her first ACC Tournament title as head coach. And now she’s won two straight in the NCAA Tournament.

If Ivey makes the Elite Eight, she will have not just met her young program’s established standard in a year in which four contributors were lost for the season due to injury. She’ll have raised it and added some hardware to her trophy cabinet to boot. The Irish are a fun team this year. What’s remarkable is this is all while Ivey plays with house money ahead of a squad next year that should boast a bevy of talent unlike anything South Bend has seen in Purcell Pavilion since the final peaks of Muffet McGraw’s tenure.