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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish top Ducks to win region, advance to eighth Final Four in program’s history

| Tuesday, March 27, 2018

SPOKANE, Wash. — It had to start with junior forward Jessica Shepard, the player who made an instant impact after being granted eligibility on the day of Notre Dame’s first preseason game.

Top-seeded Notre Dame’s leading scorer had to be senior forward Kathryn Westbeld, the one starter whose value never seemed to appear on box scores.

Sophomore guard Jackie Young had to lead the game in rebounds, defying gravity against much taller players as the Irish dominated the offensive glass with 19 offensive rebounds.

Junior guard Marina Mabrey, Notre Dame’s makeshift point guard, had to make her impact by setting up scores for others and dishing out more assists than one of the best point guards in the nation on the other side.

The game-clinching score had to be some kind of miraculous finish from junior guard Arike Ogunbowale, unaware as always of how many shots she’d missed (it was 13 this time) before making the one that counts.

The game had to turn on some adjustment made by Hall of Famer and Irish head coach Muffet McGraw.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Irish head coach Muffet McGraw, center, celebrates her team’s 84-74 win over Oregon in the Elite Eight on Monday with junior guard Arike Ogunbowale, left, and senior forward Kathryn Westbeld, right, at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.

And the next opponent after an 84-74 win over second-seeded Oregon to advance to the Final Four of this year’s tournament? Well it has to be the old rival, doesn’t it?

Within the opening seconds, the game already appeared to be living up to its billing as a high-scoring, fast-paced shootout. Freshman Ducks forward Satou Sabally layed it in to open the scoring just 12 seconds into play. The Irish quickly answered through junior forward Jessica Shepard before sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu and sophomore forward Ruthy Hebard gave the Ducks a 6-2 lead.

Just over two minutes into the game, the Irish had tied it at 6-6, and the teams traded scores through the first quarter before graduate student forward Kristina Nelson gave the Irish their first two-score lead of the game at 20-15. Westbeld, averaging only 7.4 points per game for the season entering the game, scored six points in the game’s opening five minutes for the Irish. She said she realized early on that she had the opportunity to take advantage of Oregon’s defense.

“I think from right at the get-go, the high post was really open, midrange,” Westbeld said. “So I just kind of took what they gave me. We have four great players, other than me, on the floor at the same time. You have to kind of take away, choose something to give up. I think they chose to kind of leave me a little bit, double-team on some other people. So, you know, I just kind of took what they gave me.”

However, Ionescu — who had been named an AP first-team All-American earlier in the day — put Oregon back within a single point at the end of the first quarter, hitting two jumpers in the final minute to make the score 22-21 after one period. Ionescu continued to take control of the game early in the second quarter, assisting a Sabally 3 before scoring herself to extend her team’s run to 9-0 and the lead to 26-22. Although Ionescu carried the load for the Ducks offense early on with 19 first-half points, she credited her team’s defense with allowing the offense opportunities to score.

“We got stops in the first half,” Ionescu said. “I think that led to transition baskets. That’s what we’re best at.”

With 8:11 left in the half, it was still 26-22, but 55 seconds later, the score had swung to 31-26 to Notre Dame. Shepard and Mabrey combined for nine points in under a minute, capped off by a 3 from Mabrey following an inbounds violation, restoring the five-point Irish lead.

But the momentum-swings were far from finished. A 13-2 run for the Ducks, started by four points from Hebard, put the Irish behind again, and in the final minute of the half, Ionescu knocked down a 3 to give the Ducks their largest lead, 46-37.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Irish junior guard Arike Ogunbowale drives towards the basket during Notre Dame’s 84-74 win over Oregon on Monday at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.

But again, the Irish matched Oregon’s run with an identical one of their own. Shepard cut the lead to 46-40 with a three-point play just before halftime, and after a slower start to the second half, the Irish stifled the Ducks offense while making shots of their own, once again bringing back that five-point cushion when Ogunbowale grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to make it 55-50. After allowing the Ducks to score more than 20 points in each of the first two quarters, Notre Dame held the nation’s seventh-highest scoring offense to just nine in a third quarter capped off by a Young jumper that gave the Irish a 61-55 lead. McGraw said she needed to change her team’s defensive strategy to shut down the Ducks.

“The third quarter, I thought we guarded the ball screen a little differently,” McGraw said. “We tried to double [Ionescu] a little bit more, tried to get a little bit of a hedge. I think that was a little more effective than our Plan A, B, C in the first half. We dug deep to the scouting report to go to that one.”

As the final quarter began, Notre Dame’s biggest fears briefly manifested themselves. After Ionescu grabbed a board and made a layup, her outstretched arm collided with Mabrey, who fell to the ground. Young then tripped over Mabrey, and although the sophomore got up quickly, Mabrey remained on the ground with a hand to her face from the collision with Young’s knee.

But Mabrey did get up, and after applying some ice to her eye, she was ready to play on. Her attempt at a statement 3 was long, but Shepard grabbed the rebound and finished.

The ensuing minutes nearly descended to chaos as a string of fouls — some called, some not — from both teams dominated the game. The Ducks slowly worked their way back to within a score at the 5:48 mark of the final quarter, causing the crowd at Spokane Arena to rise to its feet. But Westbeld scored her 17th and 18th points of the game from the line and soon added a layup to round out her 20-point game and, more importantly for the Irish, an eight-point lead. Westbeld, who came into the game recovering from an ankle injury suffered in the tournament’s opening round, said she was determined to make an impact.

“This is my senior year, last round in the tournament,” Westbeld said. “I’m just going to give it my all regardless of pain, injury, anything. I’m just going to fight, play with my teammates, fight for them, play for everybody in South Bend — family, friends, everyone.”

The Irish kept control of the game, but the Ducks stayed just within reach over the final minutes. Ogunbowale’s drive to the basket and finish off the glass with just over two minutes left may have been the deciding play, however, as the Ducks fouled on the remaining Irish possessions and Notre Dame made its free throws to emerge as 84-74 victors.

Now, Notre Dame will face arch-rivals UConn in the Final Four this weekend after the Huskies defeated South Carolina. It will be the program’s eighth Final Four appearance, and tipoff for Friday’s game is set for 9:30 p.m.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel