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ND Women’s Basketball

Cook: Ivey embraced the challenge, brought the Irish back

| Monday, March 28, 2022

Imagine you are looking for your first head coaching job as a women’s basketball coach. Your alma mater is attempting to replace a coach who was there for 33 years and earned a record of 848-252, good for a .771 winning percentage. She took her teams to nine Final Fours, seven championship games, and won the whole thing twice in 2001 and 2018. She is one of just five college head coaches – men’s or women’s – to win over 930 games and became just the 32nd woman to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017. Oh, and she was your coach during your college playing days. 

Do you want that job and all the pressure that comes with it? 

Most first-time head coaches would probably shy away from a daunting challenge like this. Especially at a place like Notre Dame, where winning is the top priority just slightly behind Sunday mass (maybe). But for Niele Ivey, it has been a challenge that she has tackled head-on. 

While her first season in South Bend may not have gone exactly according to plan with the Irish missing the NCAA Tournament, Ivey’s second season at the helm was the complete opposite. Despite some ups and downs over the course of the year, Ivey and her team found their stride in March, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen and coming oh-so-close to an Elite Eight berth. 

“I’m super proud of my team, I’m so proud of them. You know, coming from last year not making the tournament to being one possession away from going to the Elite Eight,” Ivey said. “And I talked to them in the locker room. We have come so far and the growth, the maturity of this team this entire season, the belief, the buy-in, I could not ask for another special group. I love them so much, and I am just so proud.”

And while the pain of the loss stings for now – especially since Notre Dame led for the entirety of the second half until NC State guard Raina Perez picked the pocket of Dara Mabrey and scored with 14 seconds left – Ivey made sure to let her team know that this loss does not define their season. 

“I talked about just to celebrate, and actually just to acknowledge where we are right now. Acknowledge our growth, acknowledge how far we’ve come. You know, I’m in year two. We didn’t go to the Tournament last year,” she said. “I don’t want my team – and I told them this – I don’t want them to feel like this loss dictates who we are, because it doesn’t. It’s hard, but it’s part of the game. There’s a winner, there’s a loser, but we can always learn from it. And so that’s what we’re going to do, I talked about that. I wanted to stress that to them, I don’t want them to feel that this is the end of the world.”

The loss may be slightly easier for Ivey to swallow knowing the type of talent she has returning next year when the Irish can realistically compete for a national championship. The team is young, and freshmen Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron and sophomore Maddy Westbeld proved that they can excel on the national stage during this tournament run. 

“We have a bright future. I’m starting two freshmen and a sophomore, I have an incredible addition coming in next year, and we have pretty much everyone back,” Ivey acknowledged. “The future is really bright, and I’m really excited just to see who we are and what we’re going to do in the future, and I talked about that.”

The learning is far from over, and bigger goals still loom in the distance. Coach Ivey will be the first one to tell you that. But these will come in time and through hard work. Ivey has already started to rebuild something special in South Bend, but she is no stranger to the grind that is required to win a national championship. She won one as a player in 2001 and as a coach in 2018, after all. 

That being said, Ivey’s brief time as the head coach has already taught her a lot about herself and her program as they navigated a difficult and unprecedented two years. 

“I’ve learned so much in the past two seasons. I’ve grown as a coach, and I’ve grown as a person,” Ivey said. “It’s hard for every college program going through COVID, navigating through that, recruiting, adding some incredible pieces to this program. Having an amazing staff to work with and having an incredible returning team this year, so I credit all of that to what we’re building. It’s all about belief, it’s all about buy-in, and it’s about commitment, and I had that. And that’s what I’m excited about, I’m excited to get back to work – maybe I’ll take 24 hours off – and then I’m going to start watching film and get back to work. Because that’s what it is, it’s a grind.”

Tasked with the seemingly impossible job of replacing the legendary Muffet McGraw, Coach Ivey has this Notre Dame team back in the national spotlight perhaps sooner than many expected. She has done this by staying true to herself and bringing her own personal swagger to the Irish sideline, a swagger that shone through in her press conference just moments after the toughest loss of her young Notre Dame coaching career. 

“My mantra is never get too high on the wins, never get too low on the losses. This one hurts, but I know that I’m at an amazing University, I have an amazing staff, I have amazing support, and I have an amazing team. And I’m just blessed and grateful that I get to lead this group, and I’m just happy that the transition has happened so fast. Normally it doesn’t happen that fast. I was told ‘oh, you’re going to need three to four years.’ Well, I needed one.”

Yes, Coach Ivey, that’s right. You brought us back after just one season. Now let’s go hang another banner.

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

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