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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish earn fourth straight ACC title, narrowly miss out on Final Four trip

| Friday, May 19, 2017

It was a year of highs and lows for the Irish, as they looked to rebound from last season’s shocking early exit from the NCAA tournament. History repeated itself, however, as perennial No. 1-seeded Notre Dame fell to Stanford — the team that took it out in the Sweet 16 in 2016 — in heartbreaking fashion in the Elite Eight.

Irish senior guard Lindsay Allen drives around a defender during Notre Dame’s 88-82 overtime win over Purdue in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 19 at Purcell Pavilion.Emmet Farnan | The Observer

Irish senior guard Lindsay Allen drives around a defender during Notre Dame’s 88-82 overtime win over Purdue in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 19 at Purcell Pavilion.

As the dominant force in the ACC, Notre Dame had its talent called into question after a home loss to No. 1 UConn a month into the season. The Irish (33-4, 15-1 ACC) then went on to drop their first — and ultimately only — ACC contest of the year to North Carolina State in what was a huge upset for the Wolfpack (23-9, 12-4 ACC). Notre Dame’s third and final loss of the regular season came weeks later, as Tennessee scored in the final minute to upset the Irish by two.

After this 71-69 loss to the Volunteers (20-12, 10-6 SEC), however, the Irish went on a 14-game winning streak to close out the season, taking their fourth consecutive ACC title — both the regular season and postseason titles — becoming one of only two programs to do so.

The squad earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive year and advanced to the Sweet 16 after defeating No. 9 seed Purdue 88-82 in overtime at Purcell Pavilion. However, the Irish lost junior All-American forward Brianna Turner to a torn ACL during the game. The team stepped up in her absence, defeating No. 5 seed Ohio State in convincing fashion, 99-76, advancing one step farther than the previous year.

The Irish then faced off against Stanford (32-6, 15-3 Pac-12) in the Elite Eight — a rematch of last season’s Sweet 16. And despite getting out to a 14-point lead at halftime against the Cardinal, the Irish fell to them once again after Stanford was able to make a comeback, winning by one point and sending Notre Dame home.

“I think for the freshmen and sophomores, who are a huge part of our team, to have them get that experience of playing in the game that could get you to the Final Four, now they have that experience,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said on her team advancing one game further than in 2016. “So, we moved one game forward this year and then, next year, hopefully they’ll know how to get past that one into the Final Four.”

Despite having a worse regular season record than in 2016, McGraw said she was proud of her team’s performance and strong run to finish the year.

“I was really, really pleased with the way the team just kept getting better,” McGraw said. “I thought we were playing our best basketball in March. We really looked good. We started to peak during the ACC tournament. To win four consecutive ACC tournaments and regular season [titles], I think, is a phenomenal accomplishment that this team really had to earn. And then, to go into the NCAA tournament without an All-American, Brianna Turner, and still manage to get to the Elite Eight — I thought was a great accomplishment for this team.”

The regular season losses and early exit from the NCAA tournament were not the only hardships for the Irish. On top of losing Turner in the postseason, junior forward Kathryn Westbeld battled an ankle injury from early January throughout the rest of the season and ultimately needed surgery in the early offseason. Westbeld, who had started every game until her injury, missed two games before returning off the bench for the Duke game. Westbeld’s injury overlapped with an injury to junior guard Mychal Johnson, who also required surgery after the season. Despite the injury, Westbeld produced on the court, picking up a double-double against Ohio State.

“It was huge [that Westbeld played through injury],” McGraw said. “We never would have accomplished what we did without her. She has showed tremendous mental toughness. She wasn’t allowed to practice, played through pain and just, what great leadership she showed, what great team-first attitude she showed. She’s always been the glue that keeps up together, and it was just such a marked difference. When she was in the game, we were a completely different team.”

Looking to the future, the health of the Irish roster is still in question, as the decision as to whether Turner will be able to play next season will likely not be made until just before the start of the season. However, whether or not Turner will be in the lineup, McGraw is expecting the rest of her team to step up, as they did in the final two games of the season.

“[Sophomore guard] Arike [Ogunbowale] had a phenomenal season,” McGraw said. “She was the MVP of the regional. I mean, as a sophomore, I don’t think that’s ever happened before for us. So, she just really played with a lot of confidence, and we just need her to be great again.

“I think [freshman guard] Jackie [Young] showed a glimpse of her future here. The sky’s the limit for her because she’s so talented. She wants to be good. She’s going to be the next great player. And [sophomore guard] Marina Mabrey. I think all three of them. They had great years, and they’ll be even better next year.”

The Irish are looking to add depth to the roster, something McGraw plans to achieve with the addition of three new players: incoming freshmen Danielle Patterson and Mikayla Vaughn and graduate student transfer Lili Thompson, who will be coming from Stanford. McGraw said the combination of those three players will bring a new level of added defensive intensity to the table — something McGraw felt her team was missing at points this year.

“I’m expecting the freshmen to come in and learn a lot in a short period of time. I consider them both to be exactly what we need,” McGraw said. “They’re both high-energy; they are going to be extremely hard workers. I think they’re kids that just want to get better. They want to win. I think they want to play their part and contribute any way they can. I’m really, really excited about both of them. We weren’t a great defensive team in some spots, and so now, I think they’re going to be able to guard a lot better. I think it enhances our chances of pressing. It makes us a completely different team defensively, and Lili’s ability to guard the ball-handler, along with Mychal Johnson is something we really need.

“So, now we have two people that can really guard the ball-handler and also to help us press. And I think Lili’s — just her presence, and she’s played in the Final Four. She knows what it’s like to be on the big stage. She’s a good 3-point shooter, which is something that we always are looking for. So, I think that she’s going to make an immediate impact and really help.”

Thompson will be an addition to an already strong senior class made up of Westbeld, Turner, Johnson and graduate student Kristina Nelson. After losing senior guard and all-time Notre Dame and ACC assists leader Lindsay Allen, who was drafted as the 14th overall pick by the New York Liberty in the 2017 WNBA Draft, the Irish will be facing a leadership void. McGraw said she does not expect one single player to fill Allen’s shoes in terms of her leadership, but that the class of 2018 will work together to do so.

“I think it’s going to be a great leadership team,” McGraw said. “I think that [the seniors] are going to each play a role in how they lead, and I think they’re all going to be really important to our success this year.”

As a perennial contender in the NCAA tournament who spent the majority of the regular season as the No. 2 team in the country, McGraw feels her team is poised for progress — her ultimate goal.

“We want to take another step,” she said. “We want to do what we did this year and then some. We want to get to the Final Four. That’s our goal.”

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About Elizabeth Greason

Elizabeth is a sophomore studying civil engineering from New York, NY (yes, the actual city). She is a proud resident of McGlinn Hall and is a die-hard Mets and Giants fan. She is the current Sports Editor of The Observer and she also has an obsession with golf that is bordering on unhealthy.

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