Kathryn Westbeld serves as leader for Notre Dame through Final Four experience
Elizabeth Greason | Thursday, March 29, 2018
Six rebounds. Four points. Three turnovers. Two games.
But she’s been there. She’s played. And just about no one else has.
Those 25 minutes then-freshman Kathryn Westbeld played over the course of Notre Dame’s two Final Four games against South Carolina and UConn in the 2015 Final Four are 22 minutes more than anyone else on the Notre Dame roster has played that deep in the NCAA tournament — current graduate student forward Kristina Nelson played just three minutes in the team’s 2014 Final Four run her freshman year, though she did not see the court in the 2015 Final Four.
This season, the senior forward has guided her team as it scaled a seemingly-insurmountable peak. And now, Westbeld and the Irish stand on the final ledge, where it all began for Westbeld — a final weekend matchup against Connecticut (36-0, 16-0 AAC), this time in her home state of Ohio, no less — eyeing the summit.
“Freshman year, we were on a run. We went to the Final Four the past few years, and it was just kind of me. I didn’t have a huge role on the team, but I was just kind of playing, doing what I can, so enjoying it there,” Westbeld said. “It’s definitely different senior year, me being a leader on this team and a captain, I think, and someone with a lot of experience who’s been there before. I definitely think that that’s going to help in the long run. I’m just really excited to be able to go home and do it.”
While Westbeld may not have been the kickstarter the Irish needed in the Final Four her freshman year, that reputation has certainly changed. When she took the court against Villanova after not starting the first half due to a sprained ankle, the Irish (33-3, 15-1 ACC) and the Wildcats (23-9, 12-6 Big East) were tied. Westbeld played through pain for 16 minutes in the second half and the Irish won by 26 points, sending them on what would be an immensely successful trip to Spokane, Washington.
“Kat, last year, never practiced, and she was on the stretch for the last month-and-a-half of the season where she played late in the game. But to have her in a boot — she was a in a boot before the game — and to be able to come out, I thought it was a really motivating and inspiring moment for the team,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said March 18 after the win.
As a leader of the squad, Westbeld is hoping to pass along the importance of remaining calm and focused on the goal throughout the hype and media attention that will lead up to Friday’s game.
“Going to the Final Four is a really exciting thing and not something that everyone gets to do in their lifetime, so I think we’re all going to be really excited,” she said. “But I think if I can keep us all level-headed and keep us calm, that will help a lot.”
After making an early exit from the tournament in the regional rounds for the past two years, Westbeld said her desire to cut down the nets in Spokane only grew, especially since this year was her final chance to do so.
“I wanted it so badly, there’s no words to describe it,” Westbeld said. “But I’m just really happy that we were able to accomplish that for our teammates, because I know the seven scholarship players we’ve had and our walk-ons, our injured reserve, everyone has done so much for all of us to get to this point, so I’m just really proud of everyone.”
The senior is well-aware of her status as the only active Notre Dame player to have taken to the hardwood in meaningful minutes on such a large stage, and while Nelson and seniors Brianna Turner and Mychal Johnson made the trip to Tampa, Florida, in 2015, Turner is sitting out the year with a torn ACL and Nelson and Johnson did not see any action in either game that year.
“Just being a freshman, I was just kind of taking it all in. You just never know if it’s going to happen again, so really just taking it all in, having fun, just doing what I can to help the team win,” Westbeld said. “ … I’m the only experienced player to play in the Final Four, so just keeping a level head and making sure we’re all doing what we need to do to win.”
Westbeld — who, despite playing through yet another injury, will almost certainly see more than the five minutes she saw in the 2015 championship against UConn in this Final Four game against the Huskies on Friday — noted that the game will be particularly special because, no matter the result, the Kettering, Ohio, native will get to finish her collegiate career in front of a wide variety of friendly faces in Columbus, Ohio, something very few players get lucky enough to do.
“That never happens, so honestly it means the world to me,” Westbeld said. “My family is just blowing up my phone trying to get tickets, and I’m just trying to figure out all the situations with that, so it definitely means a lot just to be able to go home for that last few games here. It just really means the world to me.”
And when she walks off the court for the final time, whether that be Friday or Sunday, Westbeld will finish her career with nearly 3,000 minutes of career playing time, over 1,000 points and roughly 700 rebounds. But, as her coach will tell you, as impressive as her stat sheet may be on a given day, it’s off the court that Westbeld really sets herself apart — as a leader and a role model. And this weekend, she will show that. Because she’s got some unfinished business to take care of.