We’re back with the first of this season’s weekly recaps! Despite concerns about the depleted Irish women’s basketball roster this season, the team has gotten off to a hot start. The #3 Irish have a 7-1 record that includes wins over four ranked opponents and a close loss to #1 UConn. They’ve accomplished this despite only having played one home game this year, a comfortable win over Mount St. Mary’s back on November 11th.
As is often the case, the early portion of the season has been a bit tough for fans to follow. Women’s basketball still doesn’t get the same amount of coverage as the men’s game, so it can be a struggle to see these games. Hopefully this is something that will improve as the women’s game continues to grow. I’ll just include some quick notes and observations on the first part of the season from what I was able to piece together from the games that were available to stream, and from radio coverage, box scores, and recaps.
One of the first pleasant surprises of the year has been senior Kathryn Westbeld’s role on the court. Before the season started, it was not clear how much she would be able to play through the pain of a lingering ankle injury. There was some discussion of her sitting out the first couple of weeks of the season, but she has played in all but one game and is averaging more than 20 minutes per game. If she is able to keep that up, and especially if her health improves, that could be a big help to the Irish. Westbeld established herself as a key player on last year’s team and could take on a leadership role for this team.
Following wins over Mount St. Mary’s and Western Kentucky, the team traveled to Oregon to take on the 18th ranked Oregon State Beavers. Behind 21 points from sophomore Jackie Young, they outlasted OSU 72-67. Next up was a trip to Florida to play in the Gulf Coast Showcase over the Thanksgiving weekend. They easily handled East Tennessee State in the first round of the tournament, then faced #17 South Florida in the second round. ND had a quick start to the game, and led by 13 at halftime. Despite giving up an impressive 36 points to USF’s Kitija Laksa, the Irish hung on to win by ten. This win sent them to the championship game against defending national champion, #3 South Carolina. The Gamecocks provided a real test for the Irish, jumping out to an early lead and making Notre Dame play from behind early on. The Irish showed some toughness, however, taking the lead by halftime and never looking back. They held off a fourth quarter comeback attempt from South Carolina to take the 92-85 win and the Gulf Coast Showcase title. Additional hardware was awarded to tournament MVP Jackie Young, and all-tournament team honoree Arike Ogunbowale.
3 games. 3 days.
Back-to-back Top 2️⃣0️⃣ wins. Most points scored against South Carolina since 2009.
Not a bad way to spend your Thanksgiving weekend! 😏
Go Irish! ☘️ pic.twitter.com/KA5ssQCxJv
— NOTRE DAME WBB (@ndwbb) November 27, 2017
Things were looking up for Notre Dame coming out of this tournament, but they suffered another setback in a practice before their ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against Michigan when freshman Mikayla Vaughn tore her ACL. Vaughn was averaging 13 minutes, 8 points, and 4.3 rebounds per game through the six games played before her injury. She becomes the third Notre Dame player this calendar year to suffer an ACL injury, and joins Brianna Turner and Mychal Johnson sitting on the bench. Despite this bad news, the team came out strong against #22 Michigan and won the game by 20, their third consecutive win over a ranked opponent.
So far this season, four Notre Dame players are averaging double figure scoring – Young, Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, and Marina Mabrey. The approval of Shepard’s transfer waiver has been a huge plus for ND. Shepard leads the team with 8.8 rebounds per game, while also averaging 12.6 points, and she is likely still finding her place in the offense since she only found out she would be eligible to play this year a little over a month ago.
Ups and Downs in Connecticut
On Sunday Notre Dame traveled to Hartford to take on rival UConn, who held the #1 ranking. A loud, sold-out arena provided a great setting for the game. The two teams traded baskets and the lead early on. Notre Dame held the 14-12 advantage at a 4:08 timeout in the first quarter, but by the end of the quarter the Huskies had taken the 22-18 lead. Notre Dame’s two leading scorers, Ogunbowale and Young, both struggled to find their shots. The Huskies stretched their lead to eight to force an ND timeout.
Things turned around at that point, A made three-pointer from Mabrey and then Ogunbowale’s first made basket of the game got the Irish going, and they were able to tie the game at 28 with 5:18 remaining in the half. From that point, everything seemed to be going their way. The Irish led by as much as 10 before taking a 43-36 lead into halftime – an exceptionally rare halftime deficit for UConn.
UConn seemed prepared to bounce back when the third quarter started, but the Irish were able to respond to the challenge and held on to a 62-54 lead going into the fourth quarter. At that point, UConn started chipping away at the lead and the ND shooters went cold. With support from a roaring crowd, the Huskies retook the lead at 69-68 with just over four and half minutes remaining. Notre Dame was simply unable to score late in this game, with a scoring drought lasting over three and a half minutes. UConn pulled away, outscoring the Irish 26-9 in the fourth quarter to come away with the 80-71 win.
Of course this loss was disappointing. I know I had my hopes up when ND was able to withstand the third quarter pressure from UConn, but in fact, there are a lot of positives to take away from this game. Through three quarters, Notre Dame looked like the better team. They were just a few minutes away from a win over the #1 team in the country. Admittedly, the performance over those last few minutes was not good; however, some of that can likely be chalked up to the fact that they were playing their seventh straight road game, and with a very short bench. ND relies on only eight scholarship players after the various injuries and transfers. Of those eight, Westbeld is playing limited minutes because of her injury, freshman Danielle Patterson hasn’t seen much playing time yet, and the two leading scorers both had off nights. This team doesn’t have much experience playing together in close games, and they were outlasted by UConn on Sunday. However, I feel better now about what might happen if these teams meet up again in the NCAA Tournament. This was a great experience for the younger players, and one the whole team can learn from going forward.
My overall take on the team at this early stage is that they look better than I anticipated. Despite all of the roster changes, this team has the talent and the potential to continue to have a really great year, but there is almost no margin for error. With the short roster, they really can’t afford any more injuries or illnesses, and they will have to be careful about players getting worn down as the season goes on. It’s going to be a balancing act, but I think it will be a fun year to watch!
Tonight (Wednesday) the #3 Irish finally return home to Purcell Pavilion to take on Michigan State and former teammate Taya Reimer, who averages 10 points and 4.5 rebounds for the Spartans.
On Saturday, the team hits the road again, traveling to Penn for an afternoon game.