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ND Women’s Basketball

Kathryn Westbeld leads second-half charge to propel Notre Dame past Villanova

| Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story was published online March 18.

When the Irish went into the halftime locker room, it seemed as though the injuries had finally caught up to them.

But when they came out of the locker room, something was different.

And when they took the court for the third quarter, that something became clear: Senior forward Kathryn Westbeld was taking the court for the Irish.

In a season defined by injuries for the Irish (31-3, 15-1 ACC), Westbeld’s ankle sprain suffered in Notre Dame’s first-round win Friday had seemed to be the last straw. The Spokane region’s top seed was tied at the half with ninth-seeded Villanova, only because sophomore guard and walk-on Kaitlin Cole had managed to come away with an offensive rebound and put it back in at the buzzer.

The Wildcats (23-9, 12-6 Big East) had hit 10 of their 15 tries from 3 and were finding open lanes through the middle of the Irish defense for easy layups — a defense that looked gassed with only six scholarship players and a walk-on anchoring it.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer

Irish senior forward Kathryn Westbeld dribbles the ball at the top of the key during Notre Dame’s 98-72 win over Villanova on Sunday at Purcell Pavilion.

But when Westbeld joined her team on the court for the second half, the Irish looked completely rejuvenated and re-energized.

Thirteen offensive rebounds.

Nineteen second-chance points.

Zero 3-point field goals given up on just five Wildcat tries from deep.

Nineteen minutes and 21 seconds in the lead.

Zero seconds trailing.

And a plus/minus of 30 in the 16 minutes Westbeld was on the court.

Suddenly, a 45-45 game at half was a 94-64 cushion when the senior forward walked off the court with 4:02 left to a standing ovation from the crowd at Purcell Pavilion.

“She did a great job of coming in and affecting the game,” Wildcats head coach Harry Perretta said of Westbeld’s impact. “It just made a difference in the game. They were able to play a little smaller. … Once they started playing smaller, we couldn’t get the ball by them anymore.

“ … I think it was a spark by her, but I think it was a spark by their whole team, too. I think their whole team notched it up a little bit, and we had a tough time responding to that.”

“She was in a boot before the game,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said of Westbeld. “To be able to come out, I thought it was just a really motivating and inspiring moment for the team.”

And it was a moment the Irish certainly needed, though they weren’t even sure it would ever happen. Though Westbeld said her sprain wasn’t as severe as the one that sidelined her last year, both McGraw and the senior said it wasn’t until moments before Westbeld took the court at the half that they knew she was going to be able to play at all.

“The trainer told me before the game that she thought [Westbeld] might be able to play the second half. They were going to keep working on it and see how she looked at halftime,” McGraw said. “So we were very excited that she was able to get back into the game and change the course of the game. With her on the floor, we’re just a very different team.”

“I obviously didn’t know if I was going to play at all this game, so I really was just trying to get into it as much as I can,” Westbeld said. “I honestly couldn’t sit still in my chair, I was on the edge of my seat the whole first half. … Honestly, I was just really happy that I got to get back on the court for my last time.”

And though Westbeld’s return to the floor proved to be the momentum-shifting point of the game, she only scored two points and grabbed six rebounds in her 16 minutes. Her presence, however, opened things up for the rest of her teammates, who had big games themselves.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer

Junior Irish forward Jessica Shepard surveys the defense in Notre Dame’s 98-72 victory over Villanova on Sunday at Purcell Pavilion.

Junior forward Jessica Shepard led the way for the Irish, scoring 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds for her fourth-consecutive double-double.

“Jess was unstoppable inside,” McGraw said of Shepard’s performance. “Our gameplan was to go inside, and she did everything we needed her to do.”

“We couldn’t compete with their post players. … We were almost conceding her 18-20 [points] in the [triangle and two defense],” Perretta said his team’s gameplan for Shepard. “We were trying to stop their 3s. … We couldn’t stop them from making 2s, we couldn’t stop them from making foul shots.”

And not too far behind Shepard were junior guard Arike Ogunbowale and sophomore guard Jackie Young, each of whom scored 24 points for the Irish, while junior guard Marina Mabrey added 15 to round out the double-digit scorers for the Irish.

But the biggest impact Westbeld had was on the defensive side of the ball, McGraw said.

“It really came down to communication. Kat’s a great communicator,” she said. “We made a lot of mistakes in communication in the first half. They were wide open. We decided not to help and not to rotate when they had dribble penetration so we could just stay out on the 3-point line. We didn’t think they could make enough 2s to beat us.”

And when Westbeld came off the court at Purcell Pavilion for one final time in her career, she shared a hug with McGraw. It was a moment of happiness, knowing her team would be advancing to the Sweet 16 for the ninth-consecutive season — this time with a Saturday matchup against No. 4-seed Texas A&M in Spokane, Washington — and a moment of celebration.

“It was an emotional moment. I think neither one of us could speak at that time,” McGraw said. “We were both just obviously feeling the same thing — just so happy [and] grateful that she played four years here.

“ … I think that was just a great moment to celebrate each other.”

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About Benjamin Padanilam

Ben is a senior and The Observer’s former Editor-in-Chief, now serving as its interim Sports Editor. He is in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and also pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

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