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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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Sports

Olivia Miles steps up, fills leadership void

Notre Dame women’s basketball enters the 2022 season knowing what they’ve got in most key areas. 

Their backcourt stable is headlined by one of the most impressive freshmen in the country last year: Olivia Miles. Next to her will be Dara Mabrey, a fifth-year senior who has never missed a start at the collegiate level. Combo guard Sonia Citron offers a dream mix of ability in the post and adept perimeter play that head coach Niele Ivey has utilized impressively.

The front court is also impressive. Maddy Westbeld averaged nearly 12 points per game last year, looking comfortable in all sorts of defensive matchups. A transfer platoon of Lauren Ebo and Kylee Watson adds additional pedigree to a unit that lost an anchor in the graduated Maya Dodson. Even 6-foot-5-inch forward Natalija Marshall — who missed the last two seasons due to injury — is fully fit, with the former top-40 prospect adding yet another weapon to a well-rounded Irish roster.

Notre Dame is poised to build on an impressive 2021 season with a core that’s well-suited to execute Ivey’s fast-paced and largely position-less game plan. But for all the on-court strengths and returning talent, the question that still needed to be answered over the offseason was who would step up as the leader.

Between the departure of Maya Dodson to the WNBA and upperclassmen Katlyn Gilbert, Abby Prohaska, Anaya Peoples and Sam Brunelle to the transfer portal, the 2022 Irish returned just one player of senior or elder status: Dara Mabrey. The void left by Dodson and company led to a young Irish roster with a lack of leadership that needed to be filled, and the natural fit for such a role was Olivia Miles.

Miles is no stranger to being a heavily involved member of the Notre Dame program, despite her short time with the team. As a rookie, Miles led the squad in assists by an eye-popping amount — her 244 dimes finished second best in the entire nation, and more than tripled the second best number on the roster. She also led the team in points, steals and minutes and was a permanent fixture in the lineup at every major juncture.

But this season, her role on the team will expand past being an incredible floor general. Miles, now with a full season of collegiate experience under her belt, is poised to be a key leader for the Irish off the floor, as well. 

Miles herself will tell you, from a personality standpoint, she’s not a natural fit for the role. But she’s strived (and continues to strive) to improve her assertiveness as her time with the team grows. 

“I’m a pretty introverted person. So it’s definitely a challenge for me to use my voice and speak up in that leader way … But I definitely can work on improving my voice overall, on and off the court.”

And while Miles’ self-admitted introversion made her development as a leader particularly tasking, she possesses traits that show why she’s well-suited for the role. Always playing with passion on the court, Miles touched on how her emotional game can help her connect with a team that at many times has been sparked by her fiery play.

“[Emotion] is a big part of our team,” Miles said. “I feel like we’re all pretty emotionally driven, tapping into the way that our teammates need to be led. And I feel like high or low, we’re always invested emotionally into one another. That’s a part I do need to grow in … Emotion is very important, but I feel like more mentally with these girls, talking and getting their heads right before games, is super important”

Leaning on her on-court experience to influence her off-court efforts, Miles also touched on how Niele Ivey, a former Irish guard herself, has mentored her as she moves into a more vocal role.

“I feel like [I lead] by example … Coach Ivey tells me that all the time; just be an example for others to follow. It can help them really implement themselves into the system quicker.”

Ultimately, Miles emphasized that one of the team’s greatest strengths heading into the season is that it shouldn’t be a hard lineup to lead. A condensed Irish roster (only 12 players are rostered heading into the season, down from 15 in Ivey’s first season as head coach) thrives on chemistry and a tight-knit off-court bond. 

“I think this team is the closest that I’ve ever been to any team in my life,” Miles said. “We just hang out with each other all the time, on and off the court. I think the experience is really starting to help us … Experience is helping us perfect our system, knowing each other on the court and improving our chemistry.”

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

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Sports

Irish bring on four transfers, hoping for successful season

The Notre Dame women’s basketball team is locking in as they prepare for out-of-conference play to start next month. Their season opens on Nov. 7 versus Northern Illinois. 

Notre Dame’s season was cut short last year in a heartbreaking Sweet Sixteen loss to NC State. This season, the team is determined to build upon their performance. Head Coach Niele Ivey spoke about how last year’s loss is motivating the team this season.

“It’s something that’s always gonna be in the back of their heads. It gives them a chip on their shoulder. They know how good they can be, they showed it last year, so it’s about raising that standard, raising that expectation every day.”

The players themselves help their teammates meet these high expectations by holding each other accountable as well as cheering each other on. Players frequently exchange high fives during practice, but they don’t hesitate to offer criticism either. Sophomore guard Sonia Citron spoke about the importance of this practice. 

“I’ll get on my teammates if they’re not working hard, just like they’ll get on me, and its not personal, it’s just what we have to do to get better.” 

The Irish lost to NC State in the Sweet Sixteen by only three points, one of six losses last year that the Irish lost by five or fewer points. In such close games, effort and discipline are often the difference maker. As they prepare for this season, Notre Dame is focusing on limiting mistakes in order to win those close games.

“Every single practice we work on attention to detail and not making those silly little errors that can cost us that game,” Citron said.

Coach Ivey and the rest of the Notre Dame coaching staff also help their players emphasize these details frequently during practices, reminding players to sprint at full speed or “finish the first one” when a player misses a layup. This type of attention to detail in practice will help the Irish convert narrow losses into wins this season. 

Incoming recruits will be crucial to Notre Dame’s success this year. The Irish lost five of last year’s players, including four who transferred to other programs. The team is filling their places with four new recruits.

Guard KK Bransford from Cincinnati, OH, the only freshman joining the team, earned Ms. Ohio Basketball the past two years and is the seventh-ranked guard in her class. She has transitioned well to college so far, competing against older girls in practice and playing great man defense.

Citron spoke highly of Bransford’s abilities.

“Even though she’s so young she is so talented,” Citron said.

Along with Bransford, three transfer students are joining the Irish. Graduate transfer guard Jenna Brown joins the Irish from Stanford, where she won a national championship in 2021.

Coach Ivey believes that “playing with that championship caliber helps.”

Brown’s presence on the team brings experience to a team of young players. Brown underwent knee surgery two seasons ago and is currently practicing in a brace; however, she is moving well on the court and is expected to be a useful addition to the Notre Dame squad.

Fellow graduate transfer Lauren Ebo, a center from the University of Texas, earned Big 12 All-Tournament Team and All-Big 12 Honorable Mention accolades last year. Tall and strong, Ebo can score and rebound at will from the post. Her size gives the Irish an advantage, both because she is difficult to guard and also because her teammates are able to practice against a tougher opponent than they will usually face in games. Along with dominating on the court, Ebo is also a vocal leader both in practice and in the locker room. Coach Ivey said she can rely on Ebo to use her voice and experience to help her teammates.

Ebo also plays well with junior forward Kylee Watson, who joins the Irish from Oregon. Watson, who led the Ducks in shooting percentage last year, says she loves “being on the floor when Ebo just can go to work.” 

This type of positive team dynamic will be important to Notre Dame’s success this year. Culture is essential to any successful program, but especially one where four out of nine scholarship players are brand new to the program. Watson said that the smaller roster has actually helped the team bond. 

“It’s so much easier to build chemistry when you have a smaller roster … hanging out outside of basketball and just being close, obviously that plays a role in how much we trust each other and want to play for each other.” 

The positive team culture is obvious as you watch the Irish joke around while stretching and as they exchange personalized handshakes before the start of practice. The team looks cohesive and disciplined, and they’re having fun on the court. This is a Notre Dame team that is prepared to take the Irish to another Final Four.

Contact Sammie McCarthy at smccart9@nd.edu