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Level up: Irish look to take next step under Ivey

Notre Dame women’s basketball enters the 2022 season with expectations unlike any they’ve seen in two years under head coach Niele Ivey.

For every rebuilding hardship that Ivey’s first season brought, her second campaign in 2021 provided signs of a program on the way back to the top. Ivey’s inaugural Irish lost on opening day to Ohio and ended the season with an unceremonious first round exit in the ACC tournament. Her second squad beat Ohio by 36 points on opening night, and didn’t end the season before making a run to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. 

But more impressive than last years’ squad’s achievements was its youth. Notre Dame took the floor against North Carolina State starting three underclassmen and two freshmen. As such, most of their core returns for 2022 offer hope of a team that can build off of last season’s Sweet Sixteen run and challenge for an ACC title.

While a title winning mentality isn’t anything new in South Bend, this season marks the first time Ivey and her group can reasonably expect to compete on such a level. Not shying away from the program’s history, however, Ivey says she sees the teams’ prior accomplishments as a motivation for the new generation of talent at Notre Dame as they try to bring home a title of their own:

“The expectation is always there. When you think Notre Dame, you think Final Four,” Ivey said. “When you walk into this arena you see two national championship banners, you see the ring of honor. In the practice facility you see nine Final Four logos. So you hear about it, you see the murals… but [the team] has to go through it. So it’s about challenging them, talking about that standard and trying to set that standard and tone every day.”

Any such title challenge will almost certainly be anchored by the backcourt. The Irish return one of the nation’s most potent guard pairings in sophomore Olivia Miles and graduate student Dara Mabrey. Miles provides the flash, last season making a very solid case as perhaps the best player in the 2025 WNBA draft class. Notre Dame’s team leader in most major statistical categories, Miles finished second in the entire country in assists in addition to first on the Irish in points, steals and assists. 

Mabrey adds a cool hand to the backcourt, as an experienced on court leader who’s yet to miss a start in four years split between Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. Providing a spark from beyond the arc, Mabrey led the 2021 Irish in three point percentage. It was her 29 points and seven three pointers that helped Notre Dame notch a major statement victory on the road against Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament.

Outside of the Miles/Mabrey pairing, Coach Ivey is likely to lean on more of a positionless core to implement her high-tempo, offensive style of basketball. To achieve that style, Ivey has made heavy use of flexible sophomore combo guard Sonia Citron and junior forward Maddy Westbeld.

Though Citron didn’t work her way into the Notre Dame starting lineup until the second half of the season, her impact was massive. Proving capable in just about every facet of the game, Citron proved invaluable on both offense and defense: shooting the ball and driving the lane with equal ability, posting the second most rebounds on the team and guarding just about any player on the court.

Ivey has even hinted that she wants to get Citron even more involved than her flexible, positionless role allowed her last season.

“She’s like a jack of all trades,” said Ivey. “I’m going to force her to score a little bit more, she’s very unselfish which I think is a great attribute to have, but with this team, I need her to step up and score a little bit more, be a little more aggressive. But she does everything well so she’s a joy to have on the floor because I know she’s going to be in the right spot all the time.”

Westbeld took up a similar versatile role, one she can be expected to fill once again in 2022. An efficient shooter, the junior led Notre Dame in field goal percentage last season. She also proved indispensable down low, averaging 6.3 rebounds per game. And, at times when Maya Dodson got into foul trouble, she would act as the team’s de facto center. Against North Carolina State, Westbeld was forced into a matchup against one of the country’s best bigs in Elissa Cunane for much of the second quarter. She handled the challenge well, keeping Notre Dame in the game.

Center is the one position where Notre Dame will have a vacancy compared to the 2021 squad. Maya Dodson was an anchor down low for the Irish, leading the squad in both rebounds and blocks by a wide margin. But with Dodson’s departure to the WNBA, Ivey had no clear options in the front court heading into the offseason.

So she hit the transfer portal to adapt. The Irish brought in Kylee Watson from Oregon and Lauren Ebo from Texas to help flesh out the squads depth in the paint.

Ebo arrives in South Bend as a graduate student on the back of a career-best senior season in Austin, where she averaged 8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. A battle-tested veteran whose last two seasons featured NCAA tournament runs, Ebo can be expected to be an important leader who’ll provide invaluable experience to a still-young Irish locker room.

Watson should provide another option for Ivey down low. The 6’4 junior brings a former five star pedigree to Purcell Pavilion. Of note for Watson is that she hails from New Jersey and has previously played with Miles, allowing her to have early chemistry with Notre Dame’s starting point guard.

When asked about front-court turnover, coach Ivey raved about what Watson brings to the table as the team looks to replace Dodson.

“I’m super excited about Kylee,” Ivey said. “[She] has a motor, which you guys will see. She’s a difference maker. She’s exciting, with explosiveness… she brings what we lost with Maya and her athleticism and her ability to run the floor.”

Ultimately, it’s difficult to see how Notre Dame doesn’t improve on their 2021 campaign provided everyone stays healthy. Miles has seemed to get better every game she’s played in her college career, and now has another offseason of training and development under her belt. Mabrey should provide the type of experienced compliment that will ease Miles’ growth as well. Westbeld is a proven quantity who also has shown flashes of being an all-ACC player in 2022. Citron is another of last year’s freshman who seemed to get better as she gained experience to perfectly fit into Ivey’s system. Watson and Ebo both look to be shrewd transfer portal additions, and if they hit the ground running, Notre Dame’s front court should be a solid unit as well.

The wild card in the Irish squad is freshman guard KK Bransford. The rookie is the only member of Notre Dame’s freshman class, but brings an impressive high school pedigree. Ranked in the top thirty of all 2022 recruits, Bransford has also drawn praise from Ivey for her ability to guard and play one to four on the court, making her seem a natural fit for Notre Dame’s positionless style. Her 5’11 frame combined with an already short Irish bench makes it seem highly likely the rookie could be in line for high leverage minutes early.

If all goes well for Notre Dame, the Irish could be in contention for titles at both the ACC and national level. Such possibilities are contingent on continued development and steady production, which is never assured. But, the expectations are sky high if the Irish can hit the right notes. 

Contact J.J. Post at jpost2@nd.edu.

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