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ND Women’s Basketball

Padanilam: Notre Dame’s season should not be taken for granted

| Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story was published online March 19.

It’s really easy to get caught up in the juicy narrative Sunday’s game offered.

In the first half, top-seeded Notre Dame found itself in a battle with ninth-seeded Villanova, entering the locker room in the midst of a tie game.

But coming out of the locker room, senior forward Kathryn Westbeld did her best Willis Reed impression — look it up if you don’t know — and by the halfway point of the fourth quarter, the Irish (31-3, 15-1 ACC) found themselves up 30 on their way to a 98-72 victory over the Wildcats (23-9, 12-6 Big East) in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer

Irish junior guard Arike Ogunbowale dribbles up the court during Notre Dame’s 98-72 win over Villanova in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday at Purcell Pavilion.

Could anything be more representative of this season for this team? Somehow, someway, the Irish overcome injuries once again to make the Sweet 16 for a ninth consecutive season.

The story of Notre Dame’s injuries this season has been well documented: four key players — Brianna Turner, Mychal Johnson, Mikayla Vaughn and Lili Thompson — all lost to torn ACLs. And a fifth was seemingly lost when Westbeld was forced to sit the first half of Sunday’s win with a sprained ankle.

Yet the Irish continue to overcome. They won at least a share of the ACC regular season title for the fifth consecutive season. They clinched a top seed in the NCAA tournament. And now, they have made yet another Sweet 16.

And it’s easy to get caught up in that narrative — the one in which just having one more player come back from injury makes all the difference — and forget just how difficult it is to accomplish what this program has achieved this year.

Consider this: Beyond their three starters, the Irish do not have a single guard on scholarship coming off the bench.

Or this: When the Irish took the court Sunday, with Westbeld expected to be sidelined, they only had six scholarship players available to take the court.

And despite that, Notre Dame won its second round game against one of the country’s best 32 teams by 26 points, making it look easy.

But it’s not that easy. You only have to look at the other team the women share Purcell Pavilion with to see how quickly injuries can ruin a season.

Having covered them all season, I know how much of a toll the injury to Bonzie Colson took on the men’s program. Without their best player for 15 games, they fought their hearts out but still came up one win short of the NCAA tournament.

So you would think the women playing without their best player all season would have slipped up somewhere. And they did to an extent, failing to win their fifth-straight ACC tournament championship.

But that’s really the only slip up in the big picture.

Muffet McGraw is deserving of every accolade a coach can receive for her job this season. Despite the lack of depth to her rotation, her team still competes and executes as though it were playing with the full availability of its bench.

You only need to look at the hustle stats in Sunday’s game to see that: 19 offensive rebounds, 27 second chance points, 12 fastbreak points and an average possession time of just 15 seconds.

The Irish played every possession, with or without Westbeld on the floor, as though they were fighting for the winning basket. They crashed the offensive glass. They pushed the tempo at every opportunity. They played tight man-to-man defense, chasing players around the perimeter to limit the 3-point opportunities for the 3-point reliant Wildcats.

All of that with just one scholarship player on the bench in the first half and two available in the second half.

That alone was impressive. That alone deserves praise.

The women have lofty expectations every season, and it’s taken for granted when they meet those expectations and treated as a disappointment if they come up just short.

But not this season.

With all the adversity they have faced, they didn’t crumble or fall apart. They didn’t fall short.

They’re right where they have been any other year. Even though it’s not like any other year.

So regardless of what happens come the daunting challenge of Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 round and beyond that, chalk this season up as a success.

Because they’ve somehow managed to meet the expectations they probably never should have been saddled with in the first place this season.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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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.

Contact Benjamin