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ND Women’s Basketball

Citron steps into leadership role as Irish make tournament run

| Friday, March 24, 2023

When All-American guard Olivia Miles went down with a knee injury Feb. 26, many thought Notre Dame’s dreams of a deep tournament run were all but over. The Irish were already missing sharpshooting graduate guard Dara Mabrey, who suffered a torn ACL in Jan., and it was clear in their blowout loss to Louisville in the ACC Tournament semifinals that they desperately missed Miles’ unmatched creativity and scoring ability. 

If the Irish hoped to make good on lofty preseason expectations, they needed a new leader to step up on the court. Naturally, that void was filled by sophomore guard Sonia Citron. The 6-foot-1 guard has served as Miles’ co-star for much of the last two seasons. She leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.7 points per game, and is the team’s best defender.

Already doing so much for the team, head coach Niele Ivey has asked Citron to step into an even bigger role, and she has embraced the challenge. 

“I credit Sonia. I knew Sonia was going to come in and do whatever I needed her to do,” Ivey said Thursday. “She gets the team’s best defender, and she’s sometimes guarding the opponent’s best player, and I’m asking her to run the point and score. It’s a lot to carry for her, but she’s great. She’s embraced it all.” 

Citron showcased her immense potential as the offensive leader for the Irish in their ACC quarterfinal victory over N.C. State. Hardly stepping off the floor, she scored 28 points, while adding nine rebounds and five assists. She used her size and strength to go to the free throw line 15 times, while also making an impact on the defensive end of the floor. 

Yet she cooled off in the 26-point loss to the Cardinals the next day, scoring just eight points on seven field goal attempts. Through the first two rounds of the national tournament, she hasn’t lit the world on fire with her offense, but she turned in back-to-back 14-point performances. In Sunday’s second-round victory over Mississippi State, she turned in a defensive masterclass, coming away with four steals, while supplementing a poor shooting night from the field with 14 free throw attempts. 

If Notre Dame is to have any hope of upsetting second-seeded Maryland on Saturday in Greenville — and, if they win that one, a likely Elite Eight matchup with South Carolina, one of the best teams college basketball has seen in years — Citron, like the rest of the team, will have to be at her best. 

Saturday’s matchup with the Terrapins comes against a familiar opponent. The Irish lost a heartbreaker at the buzzer to Maryland on Dec. 1, but Citron had what was arguably her best performance of the year in that game. She scored a team-high 24 points on 8-14 from the field, while also grabbing 10 rebounds. 

A repeat offensive performance would go a long way toward helping Notre Dame secure the upset. However, her defensive prowess may be even more important. Star Maryland guard Diamond Miller torched the Irish in that first matchup to the tune of 31 points, including the game-winning jumper as time expired. Recently named a second-team All-American, Miller has been brilliant all season for the Terrapins, averaging 19.7 points per game. Shutting her down will be key to Notre Dame’s chances, and Citron will likely be her primary defender. 

“She’s phenomenal,” Ivey said of Miller. “I’ve got A, B and C, I always have backup plans of trying to defend her … you’re never going to hold her scoreless. You just have to make sure you contest her enough that you’re making every shot a contested shot.” 

Since she arrived in South Bend, Citron has always existed at least somewhat in Miles’ shadow, although she certainly seems not to mind. In many other programs, she would be the unquestioned number one option, but not many teams have Olivia Miles. From her flashy shots to no-look passes, she commands the bulk of the attention from fans and opposing defenses alike. Even a year ago, Citron was named ACC Rookie of the Year, and that was likely due to the fact that her classmate was ruled ineligible, having played six games the year prior as an early enrollee. 

Still, the backcourt mates share a special bond, and Miles has helped lead even from the bench. “Liv is really close with Sonia,” Ivey said. “It’s great that out of a timeout, if I’m telling her what I need her to do, Liv backs me up and speaks their language, and kind of calms her which is great.” 

Now, it’s largely the Citron show for Ivey and Notre Dame. While she’s not as flashy of a player as Miles, she certainly commands the same respect level from opposing defenses. Without Miles and Mabrey to draw attention away from her, it has been an adjustment. Yet few expected Notre Dame to make it this far, which means that the Irish, and Citron, can play without a sense of pressure that they would otherwise feel. 

“We’re definitely playing with a chip on our shoulder. We have no pressure on us,” Ivey said. “No one was looking for us to be where we are right now, and that’s fine.”

Citron has quickly stepped into a leadership role for the Irish, and while vocal leadership is “not really in Sonia’s character,” according to Ivey, she has found other ways to lead on and off the court, typically leading the on-court huddles amongst the starters. 

The Irish no doubt face an uphill battle this weekend — first seeking revenge against Miller and the Terrapins, and then, should they prevail, a likely matchup with South Carolina and reigning Naismith Player of the Year Aliyah Boston. But no one thought the Irish would make it this far. With another big performance from Citron, the Irish could shock the world again.

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