For the sixth time in eight years, and under challenging circumstances, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team is headed to the Final Four. After defeating the talented 2-seed Oregon Ducks in the Elite Eight, the Irish will face perennial foe UConn on Friday in Columbus.

Elite Eight: ND vs. Oregon

The Elite Eight matchup kicked off with some easy baskets for both teams. They traded baskets early, tying the game at 6. The team looked very comfortable on the offensive end early in the game, moving the ball well and collecting assists. Arike Ogunbowale got off to a strong start as ND took a 9-8 lead. The back and forth play continued as the Irish were able to force some turnovers. The defense looked better overall than in previous games, with a few lapses keeping the game very close. The Irish were able to take advantage of their flow on offense to shoot 62.5% in the first quarter and take a 22-21 lead over the Ducks.

The Ducks settled into their own offense even further in the second quarter, kicking things off with a 3 to take the 24-22 lead. The Irish started to get a little separation early, when Jessica Shepard connected on a pair of free throws and a layup to tie the game at 26 and Marina Mabrey joined the fun with a driving basket followed by a three-pointer to put the Irish up 31-26. However, Oregon responded with a run of their own to take a six-point lead. The Irish started to struggle on both ends of the court, committing turnovers and missing shots while failing to find an answer for Sabrina Ionescu. After a seven-point first quarter, Ogunbowale was held scoreless in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Ionescu collected 9 points in the quarter to give her a total of 19 for the first half. Oregon held the 46-40 lead at halftime.

Muffet McGraw and her staff must be among the best at halftime adjustments, as this team has put out strong third quarters all season. This game was no different. The Irish quickly tied the game at 48 as Kathryn Westbeld continued a strong performance that included a lot more scoring than we’re used to seeing from her. A well-timed three-pointer from Mabrey gave the Irish a 51-50 lead. 51 must be this team’s lucky number – in both this game and the Sweet Sixteen matchup against Texas A&M, they retook the lead at 51 points and never trailed again. The Irish defense improved massively from the first half as they outscored the Ducks 21-9 to take a 61-55 lead.

Even a lump on the forehead after a collision with Ionescu early in the fourth quarter wasn’t going to keep Mabrey out of this game. She contributed to all phases of this game. The Irish grew their lead to 65-57 while playing good defense and outrebounding the Ducks, but some missed shots, a bad foul, and a turnover allowed Oregon to cut the lead back down to two at 65-63. ND didn’t flinch, and extended the lead back to 71-63 as the offense flowed smoothly. The Irish were racking up offensive rebounds and second chance points in this game, preventing the Ducks from getting any closer.  Trailing by seven with less than two minutes remaining in the game, Oregon was forced to start fouling the Irish.  ND responded by making 9 of their 10 free throw attempts in the last 1:51 to win the game 84-74. After giving up 19 points to Ionescu in the first half, the Irish held her to 7 in the second half.

All five starters came away from this game with impressive stat lines: Westbeld led the scoring with 20 points to go along with 7 rebounds, Ogunbowale added 19 points and 6 rebounds as the regional MVP, Shepard contributed 18 points and 9 rebounds, Mabrey added 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists, and Young gave the Irish 8 points along with a whopping 13 rebounds and 6 assists. Kristina Nelson chipped in four points and three rebounds coming off the bench, while Danielle Patterson and the trio of walk-ons did not see any playing time. The Irish also counted 21 assists on 31 made baskets. After some questions about their rebounding in the Sweet Sixteen, the Irish outrebounded the Ducks 51-29 and collected 26 second-chance points for their efforts.

This has been a pretty magical run to the Final Four, certainly outperforming any expectations I had for the team this year. Before the season started, when only Turner’s ACL injury had happened, I thought it would be a difficult year. They lost point guard Lindsay Allen, who had started every single game for four years, to graduation, had two players transfer, had Westbeld struggling with a lingering ankle injury, and would be without Turner. Then Mychal Johnson tore her ACL before the season. Then Mikayla Vaughn tore hers in November. Then Lili Thompson went down on New Year’s Eve. And yet, somehow, they kept finding ways to adjust to the losses and limited depth. Their only three losses this season have come against other Final Four teams. It’s hard to argue with these results, no matter what happens in the next round. This is ND’s 8th Final Four, 6th in the last eight years, and first since 2015. It’s pretty great to be back.

Coming Up

Coming up on Friday at 9:00 Eastern (probably more like 9:30 since they are the second game), the Irish will take on the overall 1-seed UConn Huskies in the Final Four. I’m not sure how much of a preview is even necessary here – I think everyone in the country is aware of how dominant UConn has been. Once again, they are undefeated this year and keep racking up incredibly lopsided wins, including their record-setting 140-52 win in the first round of the tournament. However, as we saw last year, nothing is certain this time of year. Even the Huskies can be defeated.

While most of their games this year (and most years) have been blowouts, there have been a few exceptions. Irish fans all remember UConn’s comeback for a 9-point win over Notre Dame in December. They also narrowly escaped an upset against Texas in mid-January, coming away with only a 4-point win. Most recently, the Huskies had a relatively close 13-point win over Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. They are incredibly talented and can win in a variety of ways, but they aren’t unbeatable.

Notre Dame almost pulled off the upset when the teams played in December, leading through three quarters before UConn came back in the fourth to take the win. The Irish have improved since that meeting, but so have the Huskies. If the Irish want to complete the upset this time around, it is going to take a complete effort for the full 40 minutes.  They will need to come out strong and start scoring early, and not let off the gas as the game goes on. There won’t be any room for mistakes or foul trouble, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned this season, it’s not to count this Irish team out.