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Notre Dame rides momentum into ACC tournament

| Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Notre Dame women’s basketball team will begin play Wednesday afternoon in the ACC tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina. This is the first time since joining the ACC in 2013 that the Irish (13-17, 8-10 ACC) do not own the top seed heading into the tournament. This year, after an often-disappointing season, the Irish will be the 10th seed.

In their first matchup, they will take on 15th-seed Pittsburgh (4-25, 1-17 ACC), who finished last in the conference with only one ACC win. The Irish have already defeated the Panthers twice in the regular season, an eight-point win on the road Jan. 2, and a 22-point triumph at home Feb. 9. Notre Dame is 17-1 all-time in the ACC tournament, the only loss coming in the championship game in 2018, the season in which they eventually won the national championship.

Notre Dame is playing as well as they have all season, winning three straight games to close the regular season, including an 18-point win over North Carolina on Senior Night on Thursday and a road win over 19th-ranked Florida State on Sunday. During these last three wins, the Irish have been averaging 75 points and nearly 50% shooting, including 41.7% from deep.

Junya Kanemitsu | The Observer
Irish redshirt freshman guard Katlyn Gilbert dribbles up the court during Notre Dame’s 84-60 victory over Loyola Maryland on Nov. 8.

“It feels so good to come off a couple of wins,” head coach Muffet McGraw said. “I thought the North Carolina game was the best game we played all year, but to win at Florida State against a ranked team … I think we’ve got a lot of momentum going into the tournament.” 

In a season which Notre Dame began in the Top 25, and at its lowest points consisted of multiple 30-point losses, McGraw said she is happy with the way the Irish are playing.

“This is what I thought we would be. I thought it would be earlier, but I’m glad it came around at least at the end,” she said. “You can see improvement. Generally, we get better in March, and we’re certainly a team that’s gotten better.”

As it has a losing record, Notre Dame is in the unique position of likely having to win five games in five days in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament. If Notre Dame defeats Pittsburgh, it will take on seventh-seeded Georgia Tech. If the Irish can overcome the Yellow Jackets as well, they would play the second-seed, No.-10 NC State, in the quarterfinals Friday.

McGraw addressed the challenges of playing so many games in a short timespan.

“We definitely feel good, but we have to be able to get into the game [and] take care of business,” she said. “It’s a little more strategic for the coaches, looking at how are we going to sub, can we rest people at different times — there’s a lot of questions that we need to figure out.” 

The Irish have been playing a seven-player rotation for much of the season due to injuries, so rest will be an issue should they advance. However, the Irish appear up for the challenge.

“Nobody’s ever done it, so let’s do it,” McGraw said. 

Notre Dame also earned some recognition from the media and the ACC coaches this week. All three of Notre Dame’s freshmen were named to the ACC All-Freshman team: forward Sam Brunelle, guard Anaya Peoples and redshirt freshman guard Katlyn Gilbert. This is the second time a trio of freshmen has received all-freshmen nods and the first in the ACC era, with the other coming in 2007, when the Irish were in the Big East and Erica Williamson, Melissa Lechlitner and Ashley Barlow received the honor.

“[I’m] so excited, McGraw said. “Sam and Kat were two that played great all year long, but for Anaya to make the team only playing in five [conference] games … it really shows the respect she has among the coaches in the league.”

Peoples was ruled out for the season in January with a torn labrum.

Additionally, graduate student guard Destinee Walker was named All-ACC honorable mention. The Irish points-per-game leader was also approved recently by the NCAA to return next year for her sixth year of eligibility. 

The game against Pittsburgh tips off Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum.

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