The story line leading into this year’s ACC Tournament was Notre Dame’s shot to get revenge on the Louisville team that embarrassed them on national television earlier this season, but the happy ending was not to be. After defeating Virginia in the quarterfinal and Florida State in the semifinal, the Irish couldn’t quite pull off a win against Louisville in the final. For the first time, they lost a game in the ACC Tournament. It was bound to happen eventually as no run can last forever, but I don’t think that’s much consolation to the players or coaches.
Quarterfinal: ND vs. Virginia
You often hear basketball announcers use the cliche that basketball is a game of runs. The Irish and the Cavaliers apparently took that to heart on Friday, at least in the first quarter. Virginia kicked off the scoring with a basket on the opening possession of Friday’s quarterfinal game, but Arike Ogunbowale answered right away with a three-pointer. In fact, Ogunbowale went on to score the Irish’s first seven points as part of a 9-0 run that gave them the 9-2 lead. Virginia, unfazed, responded with their own 8-0 run to take a 10-9 lead. ND responded with an 8-0 run to take the 18-10 lead. I was starting to wonder if the whole game was going to continue in this way, with the teams taking turns playing offense, but things settled in after that. While ND was missing some shots, they were able to hold on and led 21-12 after the first quarter. The lead held early in the second quarter, but some turnovers and missed shots kept the Irish from pulling away. However, a rare three-pointer from Jackie Young (only her eighth of the season) and a layup from Kathryn Westbeld grew the lead to 38-22. At halftime, ND led 40-27.
Threatening to start the first quarter run antics all over again, the Irish started the third quarter with a 7-0 run to take the 20 point lead. This time the Cavaliers didn’t have an answer. The Irish defense was active in this quarter, collecting steals and making things difficult for Virginia. Marina Mabrey found more opportunities to score, and played well despite ending her streak at 30 straight made free throws. The Irish led 66-38 after the quarter. In the fourth quarter, they were able to rotate the starters out for some rest, leading to a low scoring early quarter for both teams. All three walk-ons got a chance to play in the conference tournament, and the Irish collected an 83-47 victory. ND’s defense gave Virginia trouble all game, holding them to an abysmal 24.6% shooting. The Irish also outscored the Cavaliers 42-14 in the paint. Mabrey collected 24 points, with Ogunbowale adding 16 and Young adding 13.
Semifinal: ND vs. Florida State
The win over Virginia on Friday advanced the Irish to a semifinal showdown with Florida State. The Irish handled the Seminoles comfortably when they met earlier in the season, but the Seminoles weren’t going down without a fight this weekend. FSU took an early 9-8 lead. The Irish answered with a 10-0 run featuring eight points from Marina Mabrey and continued to pull away, leading 23-15 after the first quarter. The two teams went back and forth, trading baskets early in the second quarter. It didn’t last, however, as FSU found their footing and seemed to catch the Irish off guard. The Seminoles ended the quarter with a 14-4 run during which the Irish struggled with turnovers, couldn’t seem to get comfortable on defense, and Arike Ogunbowale was charged with a technical foul for tripping an FSU player. The run gave the Seminoles a 1-point lead at halftime.
The third quarter looked like more of the same, as FSU grew their lead to 56-48. Then the Irish defense kicked in and the offense started to click. ND went on their own 14-4 run to take a 62-60 lead into the final quarter. Their momentum lasted as the lead continued to grow in the fourth quarter. Ogunbowale provided the necessary offensive spark in the final quarter, scoring 14 of her 20 points as the Irish settled in for a 90-80 win. All five starters finished in double figures, including 27 points from Mabrey and 17 (with 10 rebounds) for Jessica Shepard. The bench did not score at all in this game, which perhaps should have been a red flag looking ahead.
Final: ND vs. Louisville
On Sunday, the Irish played in their fifth-consecutive ACC Tournament Final. The Irish finally got their much-discussed chance for revenge against the Louisville Cardinals, but it was clear early on that things might not go to plan. Louisville started the game with an easy layup, and ND responded by committing a shot clock violation. The Irish looked nervous, or tired, or both as the game began. They lacked their usual crispness, and had several close calls with turnovers. The Irish and the Cardinals went back and forth and traded the lead for the first few minutes. Louisville was very fast getting up and down the floor, and the pace started to catch up with the Irish. The Cardinals pulled ahead to 17-12. Jessica Shepard wasn’t having that, though, and scored a few times herself to tie the game at 19. At the end of the quarter, the teams were tied at 21. This game was tough for Marina Mabrey. Louisville’s strategy was to guard her very closely, and she had a hard time getting any shots off or settling into the offense. Westbeld was able to rebound well and get some putbacks for the Irish in the second quarter, and Kristina Nelson was playing well, but the Irish still didn’t show their usual comfort on offense. The lead kept bouncing back and forth, with ND ahead 37-35 at halftime.
Things looked a little better for Mabrey when she hit a three to open the third quarter. The teams continued the back and forth play, providing a conference tournament final that I imagine was actually a lot of fun for people who weren’t invested in one of the teams. After trading baskets for a while, ND made a couple of mistakes (a turnover and an offensive foul), and Louisville took advantage to pull ahead to 51-46. As close as this game had been up to this point, it felt like these small errors and five point deficit might have put the game out of reach. Trading baskets doesn’t work when one team has a head start. The Irish started missing shots and making some bad passes, and Louisville held on to the 55-50 lead after the third quarter.
The fourth quarter started with some rough possessions for the Irish. Their shot selection was poor and they weren’t able to score despite playing decent defense during this stretch. They were turning the ball over and seemed rattled by the Louisville defense, and Louisville grew their lead to 60-52. While the Irish were able to stop the bleeding and cut the deficit to one point, they also missed some opportunities along the way to retake the lead. Trailing 65-64 with 57.6 seconds left, ND took a timeout then came back out to commit a shot clock violation. Louisville took advantage of the mistake, connecting on a basket and subsequent free throw to grow the lead to 68-64. Shepard scored to respond, but ND had to start fouling Louisville during this last minute of game time. The Irish needed to score on every possession to have a chance and they couldn’t do it. Louisville took advantage and made free throws repeatedly, including four from ACC Player of the Year Asia Durr in the game’s closing seconds. Ogunbowale hit a shot from well beyond half court at the buzzer, which cut the final deficit to 74-72. Shepard had 23 points in the loss and Ogunbowale added 20, while Louisville’s tight defense held Mabrey to 7 points. Ogunbowale and Mabrey were named to the All-Tournament first team, and Shepard to the second team, but I’m sure they would all trade those awards for another shot at the Cardinals.
It was certainly a close game, featuring 14 lead changes and eight ties, but even when it was close in the last quarter it never really felt like the Irish were going to be able to close the gap. This was Louisville’s game. My initial speculation was that perhaps the multiple injuries and short bench had finally caught up with the team, given that the conference tournament format required them to play three games in three days. That has to be tough with a short bench. However, the stats show that we can’t lay all the blame there. In this final game, Louisville’s bench scored 0 points while ND’s scored 8 (all from Nelson). The Cardinals only had six more minutes from bench players than the Irish did, so it isn’t as though Louisville’s superior depth was too much for ND. Fortunately, they have time to work on things before the NCAA Tournament begins. They have had a lot of great moments and great quarters this season, and if they play like that for a full game they should be tough to beat. The question will be whether they can put some games like that together.
I think as fans we have probably gotten spoiled, with five consecutive regular season ACC titles and four consecutive ACC Tournament titles. Losing at this point in the year is unfamiliar territory, but the streak had to end eventually. Personally, I’m looking forward to a rematch with Louisville next season (if they don’t meet up before then in the NCAA Tournament).
The Irish will now wait for Selection Monday to learn their position for the NCAA Tournament. Some projections have them holding on to the #1 seed in the Spokane region despite the loss, while others suggest that they may fall to a #2 seed. Either way, we’ll hope to see a deep run in the tournament. The format may suit them better than the back-to-back style of the conference tournament, but anything can happen in March and April.