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The Future is Bright

By Jamison Cook | March 27
The Future is Bright
Notre Dame freshman guard Olivia Miles makes a move around NC State's Kai Crutchfield (Photo Credit: Frank Franklin II, AP Photo)

Ivey and Miles have Notre Dame in prime position to win again

The Notre Dame women’s basketball team led No. 1 NC State for the entirety of the second half in their Sweet 16 matchup on Saturday, March 27th. That is until NC State senior guard Raina Perez picked the pocket of Notre Dame senior guard Dara Mabrey and put the Wolfpack ahead 64-63 with her fast break layup with just 14 seconds left on the clock.

Notre Dame sophomore forward Maddy Westbeld did get a clean look at a three for the win, but her shot bounced left off the rim. Perez collected the rebound and calmly made both free throws to put the game away for NC State with a final score of 66-63.

It was a devastating loss for the Irish who were in prime position to advance to the Elite Eight and led by seven points heading into the fourth quarter. But when the pressure mounted it was NC State who rose to the moment, finishing the game on a 7-0 run over the last 1:23.

But despite the disappointment, there are a lot of positives to be found in this year’s March Madness for head coach Niele Ivey and her team. After a disappointing finish to the regular season and a subpar performance in the ACC Tournament, Notre Dame slid all the way to a five-seed, missing out on the opportunity to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. That didn’t matter much, however, as the Irish took out 12-seed UMass in the first round before embarrassing host No. 4 Oklahoma on their home floor.

Notre Dame beat the Sooners by a score of 108-64, the first time in the history of the men’s or women’s tournament that a lower seed beat a higher seed by 40 or more points. The first two games were also a coming-out party for freshman point guard Olivia Miles, who was on triple-double watch in every game she played. Miles racked up 12 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists in the first round to notch the first triple-double by a freshman in NCAA Tournament history, men’s or women’s. She followed that up with 9 points, 7 rebounds, and 12 assists in the blowout win over Oklahoma.

After breaking onto the national scene, Miles and the Irish traveled to Bridgeport, CT for a Sweet 16 matchup with NC State. The Irish had beaten the Wolfpack back in February by a score of 69-66, and this was sure to be a battle.

After a slow start, Miles took control of the game, scoring 15 points in the first half and displaying her elite court vision. Despite foul trouble for center Maya Dodson, Notre Dame was able to keep NC State center Elissa Cunane in check, largely due to great defense from Westbeld. The Irish took the lead early in the second quarter and dictated the pace from there on out, going up by double digits on multiple occasions and fending off several Wolfpack runs.

It wasn’t until NC State began to press that Notre Dame cracked, turning the ball over a couple times that allowed the Wolfpack to creep back into the game. With 35 seconds left and Notre Dame leading 63-62 after Cunane went 1 for 2 from the free throw line, the Irish had a side out of bounds in front of their bench. After a few unsuccessful attempts inbounding the ball, Notre Dame got the ball in and made a few passes to avoid NC State traps. Mabrey got the ball near halfcourt with about 20 seconds left and dribbled right, before turning her back to spin back towards the middle. Still trying for the steal and not electing to foul, Perez saw an opportunity and stole the ball. Notre Dame never led again.

I had the privilege of being in Bridgeport for the game and had the opportunity to attend the postgame press conferences for both teams. Following NC State’s exuberant interviews discussing how they finally got over the hump following four straight seasons that ended in the Sweet 16, the somber trio of Coach Ivey, Miles, and Westbeld entered. After Coach Ivey’s opening remarks about how proud she was of her team and how this one loss doesn’t define them, Miles and Westbeld took questions.

While Westbeld was her normal reserved and brief self in responding, Miles really impressed me. The emotion in her voice was evident, but she was both composed and took responsibility for Notre Dame’s struggles against the press down the stretch, a move I thought was very mature for a freshman. Clearly, she was stung by the loss and cares deeply about the success of the program, something that could easily get lost for a college freshman that played her way into future WNBA lottery pick conversation in the last two weeks.

Westbeld and Miles only answered questions for a few minutes before they left to let Coach Ivey take on the media on her own. Once again, I was extremely impressed with what Ivey – who is coaching in her first ever NCAA Tournament – had to say. She discussed the growth of her team in the course of just one year, from missing the Tournament a year ago to being just one possession away from the Elite Eight this season. She praised the resilience and commitment of her team during a difficult two years and acknowledged the amazing support system she has at Notre Dame.

She also commented on the remarkably quick return to the limelight for Notre Dame women’s basketball since the retirement of Muffet McGraw.

“I’m just blessed and grateful that I get to lead this group, and I’m just happy that the transition has happened so fast,” she said. “Normally it doesn’t happen that fast. I was told ‘oh, you’re going to need three to four years.’ Well, I needed one.”

That’s damn right, Coach Ivey. It only took one year. And this team is primed to be good for years to come with plenty of star power on the roster. There might just be another banner in the Purcell rafters soon.