Following a win over 4-seed Texas A&M, the Irish will be advancing to the Elite Eight for the seventh time in the last eight years. They won’t have an easy road to the Final Four, as they will face talented 2-seed Oregon on Monday.
Sweet Sixteen: ND vs. Texas A&M
Kathryn Westbeld returned to the starting lineup for the Irish in this game, though she is still dealing with the ankle sprain sustained in the first round. Notre Dame got out to a quick start, with a basket from Jessica Shepard and a three-pointer from Marina Mabrey putting them up 5-0. Texas A&M responded quickly to tie the game at 5. The teams continued to trade baskets until the game was tied at 17. The Irish seemed to be struggling to rebound, and were taking some questionable shots. They didn’t seem to be able to settle into the flow of the offense. The Aggies took advantage of these issues to pull ahead to a 23-17 lead. The Irish were also struggling to defend A&M star Chennedy Carter without getting called for fouls. In fact, four of their first five fouls were against Carter. To end the first quarter, Carter was fouled shooting a three and made all three free throws to give the Aggies a 26-19 lead.
Things didn’t look any better as the second quarter got started. The Irish struggled to find their rhythm on both ends of the floor – neither offense nor defense was bad, but neither was good either. The Irish weren’t getting the benefit of any foul calls. The Aggies seemed to be connecting on every shot they put up, while the Irish couldn’t get anything to fall. While the Irish tried to cut into the lead a couple of times, the Aggies kept scoring and grew their lead to 37-24. At this point, things started to turn around for the Irish. They started looking more like themselves on offense, passing well and getting better shots. They were able to cut the lead to one late in the quarter, and only trailed 47-45 at the half. Of note in the first half: the Irish did not have a single free throw attempt in the first half. The Aggies attempted 11 and connected on 6. Of the 11, Carter took 8.
The Irish maintained their momentum into the third quarter, tying things up at 49 on an early three-pointer from Mabrey. Shepard followed this up with a layup to retake the lead at 51-49 at 8:09 in the third quarter, the team’s first lead since the 3:35 mark of the first quarter. Demonstrating the total shift in momentum, the Irish never trailed again after this point. They stretched their lead to five with the help of another three from Mabrey and a pair of Ogunbowale free throws. The teams went back and forth again after this, with ND consistently holding the five-point edge. At the end of the third, they were up 68-63.
Chennedy Carter continued to shine for the Aggies as the fourth quarter began, outrunning everyone up and down the floor. A&M quickly cut the ND lead to 68-67, but ND was able to respond. They grew the lead back to 5, then to 7 on an Ogunbowale three-pointer. The Irish offense was really clicking in the fourth quarter, looking more like we would hope to see for the entire game. A couple of late threes and a free throw from Carter cut the lead to three at 85-82, raising concerns that she would display the same late-game heroics that gave the Aggies their win over DePaul in the previous round. However, Westbeld responded with a jumper to stretch the lead back to five with 1:15 remaining. After missing a couple of shots, the Aggies had to start fouling the Irish. Ogunbowale made a pair of free throws and Shepard added one as the game wound down, and the Irish came away with the 90-84 win and another trip to the Elite Eight.
Several players stood out in the win. Mabrey contributed 25 points for the Irish, connecting on an impressive seven three-pointers in the game, a school NCAA Tournament record. Ogunbowale poured in 27 points of her own for her fifth consecutive game with 20 or more points. Shepard also picked up her fifth consecutive double-double. The defense struggled some with Carter and Anriel Howard, as they scored 31 and 29 points respectively. While the entire game it felt like the Irish were getting outrebounded, in fact they held a 40-37 edge in the category by the end of the night. Once again, the Irish had to rely on their high-scoring offense to get the win. To make it back to the Elite Eight after all of the injuries this year is a real accomplishment, and a testament to how hard the coaching staff and the team have worked to adapt to the depleted roster. Imagine what an accomplishment it would be if they can win one more and get to the Final Four…
The Irish will play their seventh Elite Eight game in eight years on Monday night (9:00pm Eastern) against the 2-seed Oregon Ducks. Oregon will be a formidable opponent, and the Irish have their work cut out for them. The Ducks have a 33-4 record, and were the Pac-12 regular season and tournament champions this season. All four of their losses have come against ranked opponents, including 1-seeds Louisville and Mississippi State. To get to this point in the tournament, they have collected wins over Seattle, Minnesota, and Central Michigan.
Irish fans may note one interesting factor in this game – former Irish player Erin Boley transferred to Oregon this year. She is sitting out this season due to transfer rules, but she did practice with the team all year and it will probably be a strange game for her to watch. I’m sure she wasn’t anticipating her new team playing her former team when she transferred all the way across the country, but that’s the fun of the tournament.
ND’s biggest challenge this game will be finding a way to defend against Oregon’s sophomore guard, Sabrina Ionescu. Ionescu has been a standout for the Ducks all year. Only a sophomore, she has already collected eleven career triple-doubles. Let that sink in for a moment – she is already the all-time NCAA record-holder in that category, and she has two more years to run up her total. Her 11th triple-double came in the first round of the tournament against Seattle. In the second round against Minnesota, she came up a little shy of #12 with 29 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds. Last night against Central Michigan she was just one rebound shy of that 12th triple-double again, with 16 points, 10 assists, and 9 rebounds. Clearly, she is a player to watch. If she was playing against a different team, I would enjoy watching the show, but I’d rather not see triple-double #12 happen against Notre Dame. The Irish are going to have to step up their defense to come away with a win.