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ND Women’s Basketball

Seven-sational: Irish atop the ACC again

| Monday, February 27, 2023

For eight consecutive years, Karen and Kevin Keyes family head coach Niele Ivey helped Notre Dame women’s basketball to regular season conference titles. As an assistant coach, she took part in a pair of Big East winnings and six ACC crowns during the 2010s. On Sunday, Ivey finally got her chance to lead the Irish to conference glory, and lead did she ever. Navigating an injury to superstar sophomore guard Olivia Miles and foul trouble down the stretch, she guided Notre Dame to a 68-65 road defeat of Louisville. With the help of North Carolina’s victory at Duke, the result secured an outright regular season ACC championship for the Irish. Notre Dame’s first title in three years and seventh overall also accounts for Ivey’s first as a head coach.

“I’m super proud of this team and their toughness and resiliency to win on the road,” Ivey said after the game. “They’re etching their names in the legacy of this program, bringing the trophy home.”

Only ten days removed from Olivia Miles’ buzzer-beater, Notre Dame and Louisville played another air-tight game. Louisville leaned out to a 14-10 lead late in the first quarter, but the Irish punched back. After junior guard Hailey Van Lith scored a quick five points, the Cardinals offense fell silent for the final two and a half minutes. In the final minute, freshman guard KK Bransford made them pay. She grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds, putting the second back home for a 15-14 advantage to end the first.

Upon transitioning to the second quarter, the Irish went cold. A 0-for-4 stretch from the field opened the door for Louisville to embark on a 6-0 scoring run. However, a big three-pointer from sophomore guard Sonia Citron knotted the score at 20. That’s when things got ugly for Notre Dame. While Louisville junior forward Olivia Cochran tallied seven consecutive points, the Irish went scoreless for four minutes. Halfway through that timeframe, Miles went down.

As she dashed toward the block, Miles lost possession of the ball and attempted to change direction. In doing so, she landed awkwardly on her right knee and tumbled in considerable pain. After enduring the scenes of graduate guard Dara Mabrey’s torn ACL on Jan. 22, many Irish fans feared the worst. But even with their phenom done for the day, the Irish continued to battle, taking a 33-24 deficit to halftime.

“When our sister goes down, everyone has to step up and do more,” Ivey said. “We’d already been through that situation [with Mabrey and Lauren Ebo], so everyone knew they had to compete.”

The Irish did more, but not before Louisville widened the margin to 10 early in the third quarter. At that point, Notre Dame’s top-three scorers on the day began to find their game. Citron, Bransford and freshman guard Cassandre Prosper scored 12 of ND’s next 15 points, shrinking the Louisville lead to 46-43 by quarter’s end.

Through the first three minutes of quarter four, the margin fluctuated between one and three points. Finally, with under six minutes to play, Citron sank two free throws and gave Notre Dame a 54-53 lead. Moments later, with the Irish up two, she hit the shot heard ‘round the ‘Ville. Late in the shot clock, she stepped back at the left wing, launching a three-ball that touched only nylon for a 60-55 lead.

Louisville, which endured a 1-for-11 stretch through the heart of the fourth quarter, fought desperately to tie the game. Nothing was working, but a major window finally opened with 17 seconds to play. Trailing by three, the Cardinals sent Citron to the free throw line for two shots. She had already drained ten but clanked both on her final trip, too, setting up Louisville for a chance to tie. 

Unsurprisingly, the Cards turned to Van Lith, the ACC’s third-highest scorer. Notre Dame defended her to perfection, and her contested three from the left corner missed everything. As the ball exited the vicinity of the rim, Prosper entered the biggest moment of her two months at Notre Dame. The early enrollee nabbed the rebound, and Louisville promptly fouled her with six seconds remaining. Needing one free throw to ice the game, she calmly knocked down both.

“She is a gamer and a blessing, a beautiful addition to our team,” Ivey said of Prosper, who provided 11 points off the bench. “For her to take steals and make those free throws speaks to the program-changing player she is.”

The Cardinals hit a jumper at the buzzer for fun, but the deal was done. Ivey screamed, Miles hobbled off the bench and the ladies in blue and gold gathered to celebrate an outright ACC title. At the center of the party was Citron, who played a career game in Miles’ absence, just as she did when Mabrey went out against Virginia. Citron dropped a season-high 27 points on a 10-for-14 performance from the free throw line. Perhaps just as importantly, she played 39 of 40 minutes, providing on-court leadership in a time of need.

“The coaches have prepared me really well for whenever Miles needs a break,” Citron said. “Our team did a great job of focusing possession-by-possession and getting stops on defense.”

Bransford also scored a key 14 points for a Notre Dame team that outdueled Louisville 47 percent to 34 from the field. The Cardinals countered with 16 offensive rebounds against the shorthanded and foul-weakened Irish, but ND buckled down late on the glass. Inefficiency plagued Van Lith (6-21 FG, 1-6 3P), but she still put up 23 points.

Having locked in the top seed, Notre Dame will wait until Friday before opening ACC tournament play. For the time being, all eyes are on the status of Miles and her apparent knee injury. Ivey said the team was still “in the dark” regarding a diagnosis after Sunday’s game. With or without Miles, the Irish will face the winner of the eight-versus-nine seed game, which will be played Thursday.

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About Tyler Reidy

Tyler is a sophomore who serves as an Associate Sports Editor at The Observer. Hailing from Omaha, Nebraska, and Keough Hall, he enjoys road trips, all things collegiate athletics and Kansas City barbecue. Reach out here or @TylerJReidy on Twitter!

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