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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish look toward Sweet 16 matchup with Texas A&M

| Saturday, March 24, 2018

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was previously published March 23.

After a 23-point comeback and a 13-game winning streak between Notre Dame’s 84-70 win over the Volunteers and its loss to Louisville in the final round of the ACC championship, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw’s prediction for the season during halftime of January’s Tennessee game was flipped upside down, as it now prepares for its trip to the Sweet 16.

“I think at halftime of the Tennessee game I was wondering if we would be in the tournament,” McGraw said Wednesday. “Certainly not going to be a host of the tournament. So, to look at us in the Sweet 16, I feel really different than I do in other years when we’ve been a No. 1 seed. This one, I feel like we’re overachieving every single game and I’m trying to really enjoy the experience of this one because it’s been so rewarding.”

The Irish (31-3, 15-1 ACC) earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the ninth-consecutive year despite some undeniable obstacles coming in the form of four season-ending ACL injuries, limiting Notre Dame to just seven scholarship athletes, with no scholarship guards on the bench.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Junior Irish forward Jessica Shepard surveys the Villanova defense during Notre Dame’s 98-72 win over the Wildcats on Sunday at Purcell Pavilion.

During Notre Dame’s 99-81 first-round win over No. 16-seed CSUN, however, the squad’s depth was called into question even more when senior forward Kathryn Westbeld sprained her ankle three minutes into the game and did not return.

She did not start against No. 9-seed Villanova, but when the two teams headed into halftime tied at 45, the trainer was able to work on Westbeld enough during the half for her to play in the second half.

“She wanted to play from the start of the Villanova game, the trainer really was holding her out,” McGraw said. “It was definitely the trainer’s decision not to play her, not ours. We would’ve played her for 40 minutes if we could have, but she is definitely playing through some pain.”

With Westbeld on the court, the Irish pulled away and easily advanced to the Sweet 16, despite her only scoring two points. McGraw said it was due to the senior’s experience and defensive presence on the court.

“[Westbeld] brings so much to the defense. She’s a good communicator, and when you play a team like Villanova that just moves constantly, you really need that experience,” McGraw said. “They’re a very difficult team to play for the first time. So, we needed her on the floor to get the big rebound, make a good pass. I think she makes everybody relax, and I think everybody played better when she got out there.”

The Irish have spent the week preparing to face No. 4-seed Texas A&M on Saturday in Spokane, Washington. The Aggies (26-9, 11-5 SEC) overcame a 17-point second-half deficit to DePaul in the second round, with freshman guard Chennedy Carter capping off a 37-point performance by driving down the court and releasing a 3-pointer while down by two points to lift her team to an 80-79 win and a Sweet 16 appearance.

Carter is one of the top freshmen in the country, averaging 22.4 points per game with a 0.444 field goal percentage from the floor. She also shoots 38.2 percent from behind the arc. McGraw feels that Carter, along with the Texas A&M post game, will be the biggest challenges for her team to combat.

“[Aggies head coach] Gary Blair does a great job with them. He’ll have a great scheme prepared for us. It’s going to be a real challenge for us,” McGraw said. “They’ve got the freshman of the year, Chennedy Carter. She’s an outstanding player and she’s not their only good player — they’ve got a couple of good 3-point shooters, a good inside game, a challenge for us. We kind of owe them for that 2011 national championship game, too.”

McGraw did note that traveling to Spokane will be a challenge for the Irish, as Notre Dame and Central Michigan are the only two teams traveling from the East Coast, so the three-hour time difference could be difficult to combat. However, the team flew out Thursday morning to give it some additional time to adjust. Junior guard Arike Ogunbowale feels the team’s 9,000-mile road trip to start the season will help Notre Dame feel prepared.

“It’s a long flight. We did it earlier in the season when we went to Oregon State, so we know it’s going to be a long flight, but we’re excited,” Ogunbowale said. “ … We’ve had a lot of road games, so it’s not going to be anything new. It’s just another game, really.”

The long flight could pose a problem for Westbeld, who is still in a boot and is still not guaranteed to play Saturday.

“ … She’s got a lot of swelling,” McGraw said. “We’re trying to work on getting some things done for the flight which is going to be a little bit of a problem for her, but I don’t expect she’ll practice all week.”

While it may be just another game for Ogunbowale, junior forward Jessica Shepard is aware of the consequences of Saturday’s matchup with the Aggies.

“I think for us the biggest game of the season is Saturday,” Shepard said. “I think every game of the season is the biggest from here on out and we can’t look past Saturday. Texas A&M is a very good team, so for us it’s looking at Saturday and focusing on that game.”

Notre Dame will take on Texas A&M on Saturday at Spokane Arena. Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.

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About Elizabeth Greason

Elizabeth is a senior studying civil engineering from New York, NY (yes, the actual city). She is a proud resident assistant in McGlinn Hall and is a die-hard Mets and Giants fan. She is currently serving as assistant managing editor of The Observer and she also has an obsession with golf that is bordering on unhealthy.

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