ND Women’s Basketball
Greason: Why the Irish? Why now?
Elizabeth Greason | Saturday, March 31, 2018
COLUMBUS, Ohio — My parents always say you only need to watch the last three minutes of any Notre Dame sporting event. That’s where it’s all decided.
On Friday, you could’ve gotten away with watching the final second before the buzzer in overtime of Notre Dame’s 91-89 win over UConn. It would have told you everything you needed to know.
Except that it wouldn’t have. Not at all.
Friday’s 45 minutes of basketball was one of the most impressive displays I have ever seen, from both teams. And all 45 of those minutes were worth watching because not only were they fantastic for the game of women’s basketball, but they answered a question. A question that many people need to hear the answer to.
How this team? Why now?
On paper, the Irish (34-3, 15-1 ACC) should have struggled to even make the NCAA tournament this season. And at points — specifically halftime of the Tennessee game when they had just been blown out by Louisville a week earlier — it looked like they might.
Realistically, a team missing its best player and its only true point guard should not be a team to make a run in the NCAA tournament. It should not contend for a regular-season conference titles, let alone win it. And it certainly should not beat UConn (36-1, 16-0 AAC) in the national semifinal to skyrocket itself into the national championship game.
And yet, here we are. Because of Friday’s 45 minutes.
Ask any fan about Notre Dame and they’ll tell you how much they love watching All-American Arike Ogunbowale shoot. So a win in overtime on a buzzer-beater from the junior guard was extremely on-brand for the Irish. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Junior guard Marina Mabrey’s stat sheet was not all that impressive against the Huskies. She scored seven points, going 3-of-10 from the field, and tallied two rebounds and three assists. She also turned the ball over four times — twice in two minutes to start the second quarter.
She was also on the court for 45 minutes. She did not rest for a second. Stepping into the point guard role for Notre Dame once graduate student Lili Thompson went down in the final game of 2017, Mabrey has been forced to step up as one of the true leaders of this squad. She has been forced to be vocal and take on a different role — not that of one who lights up the stat sheet every night, but that of the player who controls the offense and her teammates. And that is what she did Friday. While the Huskies were able to shut her down for the most part throughout the game — they’ve learned since she put up 21 points in the first half against them her freshman year — she still played her role, a role she has clearly come to embrace for the good of the team.
There’s Jessica Shepard who, simply put, does not quit. Notre Dame and Irish head coach Muffet McGraw thank their lucky stars every night that the NCAA decided in their favor and gave Shepard immediate eligibility, because teams do not know what to do with her. The junior forward, a transfer from Nebraska, can shoot, pass and rebound. Over and over and over.
There’s senior forward Kathryn Westbeld, who has spent nearly half of her collegiate career playing on an injured ankle. And while she may not practice, you certainly can’t tell. Six rebounds and five assists on a night when her four years playing for Notre Dame could have ended. Westbeld, the only uninjured player on the roster who has tallied meaningful minutes in the Final Four. But had never beaten UConn.
So, while sophomore guard Jackie Young may have scored a career-high 32 points Friday and Ogunbowale may be considered the team’s star, those full 45 minutes mattered because each one proved what a team effort this season has been.
Because what makes this team special is that, throughout its many trials and tribulations, it never complained. Not once. There was no “woe is me” moment. This is a team that gets knocked down and gets right back up again.
Another injury? Oh, her eye’s just swollen shut. She’ll be fine. She can play.
A torn ACL? Next woman up.
We’re down 11 to the biggest dynasty in NCAA history in the Final Four? We have absolutely nothing to lose. And everything we’ve worked so incredibly hard for could be gone in an instant at the exact same time.
This team’s will to win is incredible, especially because it has learned that it cannot take anything for granted.
So that’s why this team. That’s how. That’s why now.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.