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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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ACC Champion Irish seek next level with loaded roster

Notre Dame overcame adversity to play best basketball in March

For Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach Niele Ivey, the 2023-2024 season was a testament to the thousands of hours of hard work put into her program. For many fans, the 2023-2024 season was a surprise. Although the Irish returned key starters like senior forward Maddy Westbeld and junior guard Sonia Citron, the rest of the roster was a bit of a question mark. At guard, the Irish were effectively swapping out junior Olivia Miles with freshman Hannah Hidalgo, a talented — but inexperienced — young guard who plays at a significantly different pace than Miles. Of course, the Irish also battled the continuous question of Miles’ potential presence. Would she return? If so, when, and what impact would that have on Hidalgo’s play? Ultimately, that question is still to be answered. Miles sat out the entirety of the year, leaving Hidalgo to lead the way. 

After Notre Dame’s opening game — a beating against to-be national champion South Carolina in Paris — many more questions came to light. Notre Dame struggled mightily against Kamilla Cardoso, as her larger size and stature proved to be too much to handle for Westbeld and senior center Kylee Watson. Hidalgo had a great day in Paris, scoring 31 points off of 3-for-6 shooting from three. Though Notre Dame’s 29-point loss was demoralizing, the bigger loss was the unveiling of a clear gameplan that other teams could use against the Irish: feed the post. From there, superior heights seemed to be out of the picture for Ivey’s squad — maybe next year would present a real opportunity. But boy, that couldn’t have been more wrong.

Notre Dame found its stride after returning to the States. The rest of Notre Dame’s non-conference schedule proved to be much more manageable. The Irish won their nine following games heading all the way into ACC play, the best of those wins being an ACC-SEC challenge game at Tennessee that went down to the wire. Westbeld stole the show with a double-double on 15 points and 11 boards. Notre Dame’s win against Tennessee was its first against one that later made the NCAA Tournament.

While the team’s conclusion to the non-conference was nice, it surely wasn’t enough to appease Santa, as the Irish found themselves on cold feet after their Christmas break. Finding themselves without Citron — who tweaked her knee late in a November blowout against Northwestern — Notre Dame dropped its conference opener against Syracuse, largely due to the outstanding play of Orange guard Dyaisha Fair. The Irish were able to bounce back against Pitt, but not also without a loss. Westbeld left the game with a concussion, causing her to sit out one game: an Irish loss against North Carolina. Playing only six players, Ivey’s crew had a tough shooting day against the Tar Heels at 31.1%.

Once the students returned to campus, things seemed to stabilize for the Irish, as they picked up four straight conference wins — although all four were against teams not in the tournament. A rematch against Syracuse proved to be even more of a challenge than the programs' first bout. Neither Hidalgo nor Citron had much success against Dyaisha Fair. Combined with a late-game offensive collapse, Notre Dame found itself looking for help. And it needed to come quickly with a midseason trip to former Big East rival UConn just days away. 

On the night of the UConn game, Notre Dame won as much as it lost against Syracuse. The Irish shut down Paige Bueckers, and Hidalgo put up her best game yet — a 34-point, 10-rebound masterpiece on FOX Primetime Hoops. However, the FOX broadcast also told America (and the media) that Miles would not return to the court this season, raising question marks on why Notre Dame’s Athletic Communications Department and Coach Niele Ivey hadn’t announced anything prior. Nonetheless, shortly after, Ivey claimed that she was unaware of Miles’ decision to inform the public. While the University did confirm her season-long absence, few details were provided. During the postseason, The Observer confirmed that Miles was a near-full participant in practices and ran the Irish scout team.

Throughout February, Notre Dame continued to maintain its place — although frustrations began to grow. The Irish took care of business against all of its non-ranked opponents, including an impressive, double-overtime victory at Florida State. However, in two February games against ranked opponents (Louisville and NC State), the Irish came up short. Far short. A road matchup against Louisville featured abysmal, 11% shooting from deep and 17 turnovers — many coming off simple, inexcusable mental lapses.

Notre Dame’s loss against the Wolfpack was its worst at home in 20 years — the alarm was sounding loud and clear. The Irish only managed to score 43 points with only seven in the first quarter. The Wolfpack’s mature, slow pace completely schooled Notre Dame’s fast, offensive chaos, which just could not get going. At this point of the season, the Irish had a couple of nice wins, but ultimately, with a lack of depth, limited defensive options against premier post players, an offense that often stagnated and tons of mental lapses, the team’s ceiling looked very clear — and quite low. 

On the evening of the NC State loss — the second day of Lent — the team clearly died to self. The rise from the ashes took full effect, though. From there on, the Irish nearly went unbeaten until Easter. A rare Monday game at Duke started Notre Dame’s 10-game winning streak that turned the season around.

In the team’s penultimate home game against ACC regular-season champion Virginia Tech, the Irish showed what they could bring. Westbeld and Watson contained the superpowers of Liz Kittley. The next week, Notre Dame’s emerging 2-3 zone contained the prowess of Louisville in the second of their two meetings. By winning, the Irish captured the No. 4 seed in the ACC Tournament, giving them two byes, and more importantly, two extra days off to rest and recover

The rest paid off, too. Notre Dame fought and scratched against the Cardinals to win the season series. The Irish then took care of business against a Kitley-less Virginia Tech, although the Irish lost Watson in the action to a torn ACL. On Sunday, though, the Irish faced NC State, which had continued its dominance and looked like a solid pick to win the league. The Wolfpack had horrible shooting luck, though. While the Irish played well, the Wolfpack somewhat beat themselves, shooting 35%, including 3-for-17 from 3-point range. Players and fans leaped for joy as  Ivey took home her first ACC Championship, a monumental step back towards the dominance that had become synonymous with the program’s name throughout Muffet McGraw’s tenure.

Notre Dame’s excellent performance in the tournament was rewarded with a higher-than-anticipated tournament seed: No. 2. Notre Dame faced Mid-American Conference champion Kent State to open the tournament in South Bend. The Irish ran through Kent State easily. Notre Dame’s next test — in the round of 32 — was Ole Miss, a team heavily reliant on post play. Without Watson, Notre Dame did not match up well against the Rebels. However, terrific play from Westbeld and senior Natalija Marshall led the Irish to victory and their third Sweet 16 in as many years. 

Over the Easter weekend, Notre Dame made the trek to Albany, New York to take on Oregon State, a talented team looking to make its mark before the Pac-12 would dissolve over the summer. Led by Reagan Beers, a talented center, the Beavers did what Notre Dame couldn’t do: control the post. Without Watson’s presence, Beers took control of the post, and even though the Irish stayed close, it was too much to handle. Oregon State advanced, only to lose to South Carolina in the Elite Eight.

For Ivey, the year was a success and a needed step towards establishing continual S-tier dominance in the ACC. Next year, the league adds Stanford, but also several firepower teams (like Virginia Tech) lose much of their talent. Guards Anna DeWolfe and Sarah Cernugel along with forward Becky Obinma will graduate and head out to the professional world. Marshall announced her intention to transfer. Sophomore forward KK Bransford did as well, but at the team’s banquet, she announced that after testing the portal waters, she’ll be returning — a huge get for the Irish.

Ivey and the coaching staff also acquired two key players in the transfer portal to open May. They worked within the conference to nab forward Liatu King, the ACC’s Most Improved Player, from Pittsburgh. The Irish also earned the commitment of Liza Karlen, an All-Big East First Team guard from Marquette.

Notre Dame will return most of its starting lineup, including Citron, Hidalgo, Watson and importantly, Westbeld, who decided to use her COVID year. Westbeld was floated as a second-round WNBA draft pick, so her return is meaningful. The Irish will also return the recovering Miles, freshman forward Cassandre Prosper, and freshman guard Emma Risch along with incoming freshman center Kate Koval, a five-star player and the top center in her class. After playing with only six to seven players at most points this season, the Irish will have much more depth — the rotation looks to be more like eight to nine players.

“We have great firepower coming back, and you can’t teach experience,” Ivey said at the season’s conclusion. “That’s what my entire team has received this year. I’m excited next year to bring back Olivia Miles — we’re going to be healthy. We have an incredible post coming in. It’s going to be exciting. These types of moments are part of our journey.”

Until then, Notre Dame will take advantage of time on campus this summer. After traveling abroad twice in 2023 (a summer team trip to Greece/Croatia and the season opener in Paris), the 2024 season should be calmer. Notre Dame will take the rest now, though. Come tip-off in late fall, the expectations for Ivey will be sky-high. Next season’s roster represents her best yet.