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Sports

Irish Dancing: Men’s, Women’s squads each return to NCAA Tournament

| Sunday, March 13, 2022

Following a resurgent year for Notre Dame basketball, both the men’s and women’s teams are going dancing once again. Mike Brey’s squad returns to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017, while Niele Ivey makes her first tournament appearance as a head coach. 

Men’s squad head to the First Four

The men’s team will be headed to Dayton, Oh, to compete in the First Four as they try to earn a spot in the field of 64. The Irish will take on fellow 11-seed Rutgers on Wednesday night, and should they advance, they will face sixth-seeded Alabama on Friday in San Diego. 

It has been a long four years for Brey and his team. The team gathered at Brey’s home last year to watch the selection show, knowing they would not hear their name called. This year, the team again assembled at their head coach’s house and were among the first names to be called in the West region. 

“This was a 365-day chase,” Brey said. “It’s neat to come full circle and see these guys from last year, a beaten-down group, and watching the selection show and not being part of it, to being part of it (this year). We’re honored.” 

Notre Dame’s seemingly secure position was threatened this weekend as multiple teams, including Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, and Richmond, made unexpected runs in their conference tournaments. It was eerily similar to 2018, when the Irish, widely expected to be in the tournament, did not hear their name called. 

“I had a lot of flashbacks,” Brey said. “I tried to stay away from bracketology, and I was confident, at the end of the day, that I thought we had done enough.”

The Irish faced an uncertain weekend after falling in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament Thursday to eventual champion Virginia Tech. This time, though, the result was a positive one. 

“There was a lot of anxiety,” Brey said. “We didn’t jump up here, we just kind of clapped. I think we were relieved to see it.”

While the Irish do need to play an additional game, that may be a blessing in disguise. Multiple teams have made deep runs from the First Four, including a stunning run to the Final Four by UCLA last year. Notre Dame also made a deep run after winning a First Four contest in 2015, advancing all the way to the Elite Eight. 

“Sometimes when you get a chance to play… and win a game in Dayton, it can kind of jumpstart you,” Brey said. 

While this senior class has never made the tournament, the Irish have found success recently when they have qualified. In 2017, the team advanced to the round of 32. That followed two consecutive trips to the Elite 8 in 2015 and 2016. 

Irish women earn No. 5 seed, play UMass

Meanwhile, Niele Ivey’s squad will face UMass on Saturday in the Round of 64. The Irish are the 5th seed in the Norman, Ok. regional following a 22-8 regular season that culminated in an ACC semifinal loss. 

The Minutewomen finished the regular season 26-6. They punched their ticket with a victory in the Atlantic 10 tournament final last weekend. However, they remain untested, having played just two games against major-conference opponents. Playing in the ACC, the Irish have battled the best of the best all season long. 

Should the Irish advance, they will face the winner of regional host Oklahoma and IUPUI in the round of 32. A potential matchup with top-seeded North Carolina State looms in the Sweet 16. The Irish have already defeated the Wolfpack this season, in a 69-66 upset at home on Feb. 1. 

This marks the Irish’s first NCAA tournament appearance since legendary head coach Muffett McGraw retired following the 2019-20 season. Prior to last year, the Irish hadn’t missed a tournament since 1995. The team has also had overwhelming recent success in March — each of the last two tournament trips resulted in a run to the national title game, including a national championship in 2018. 

While Niele Ivey hasn’t experienced March Madness as a head coach, she still brings considerable experience from her playing and assistant coaching days. She has been a part of the program for each of the Irish’s nine Final Four appearances — two as a player, and seven as an assistant under McGraw. 

However, as far as actually playing in tournament games, inexperience could be a key issue for both the men’s and women’s squads. On the men’s side, Yale transfer Paul Atkinson, Jr. is the only member of the team with tournament experience. For the women, most of the older players have tournament experience, but three of the team’s four leading scorers, Olivia Miles, Maddy Westbeld, and Sonja Citron, have not yet had a taste of March Madness. 

While making the tournament is certainly a cause for celebration after having been left out last year, the work is not done yet for either team. Both teams will undoubtedly have high hopes for a deep tournament run, but formidable opponents stand in their way.

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