The top-seeded Irish have advanced to their ninth straight Sweet Sixteen after victories over 16-seed California State Northridge and 9-seed Villanova. They will travel to Spokane to face 4-seed Texas A&M, who are coming off a thrilling win in their second round matchup. We’ll look at how they got here and then look ahead to Saturday’s game.

First Round: ND vs. California State Northridge

Notre Dame kicked off their tournament play this year with Friday’s game against California State Northridge. The Irish came out a little rusty and missed some easy shots early, allowing CSUN to take an early 8-2 lead. Just three minutes into the game, Kathryn Westbeld headed to the bench and then the locker room with what turned out to be an ankle sprain. It wouldn’t be the NCAA Tournament without an Irish injury, right? The Irish were able to close the gap and tied the game at 10 despite some continued shooting woes. Meanwhile, the Matadors picked up some offensive rebounds and kept the game close for much of the first quarter. However, Notre Dame collected some steals and started drawing fouls as they kicked of a 9-0 run capped off by a three-pointer from Jackie Young. The Irish took a 23-16 lead by the end of the first quarter. The offense picked up in the second quarter, with aggressive play from Arike Ogunbowale and Jessica Shepard leading the way. Marina Mabrey also connected on all three of her three-point attempts in the second quarter to help stretch the Irish lead to 55-32 at halftime. Ogunbowale scored 18 points in the first half, to go with 14 from Shepard and 12 from Mabrey.

The Irish offense continued to click in the third quarter, though the defense was somewhat sluggish. Ogunbowale, Shepard, and Mabrey continued to lead the scoring as the gap stretched to 82-48. The defense still didn’t look comfortable and CSUN got plenty of good scoring opportunities. The Irish relied heavily on their own high-scoring offense in this game, and executed well with good passing and shot selection. CSUN went on an 8-0 run late in the third quarter to shave some points off the lead, and ND led 82-56 at the end of the quarter. The defensive woes continued in the fourth quarter, and the offense looked a little sloppy at times too as the clock wound down. CSUN made five three-pointers in the final quarter, while the Irish struggled with turnovers. After leading by as many as 34 in the third quarter, the lead diminished to 99-81 by the end of the game. Ogunbowale (30), Shepard (24), and Mabrey (23) each scored 20+ points for the Irish, but the defense also allowed three 20+ point scorers for CSUN. Scoring 99 points in a first-round game is great, but giving up 81 points to the 16-seed is not impressive. The team will need to play much better defense against their later opponents.

Second Round: ND vs. Villanova

Friday’s win set the Irish up for a Sunday game against Villanova. After her ankle injury on Friday, it was announced that Westbeld would be a game-time decision. Kristina Nelson started the game in Westbeld’s place, her second career start (with the only other coming on Senior Day). With Westbeld on the bench, the Irish were down to six scholarship players available to play in the first half. Ogunbowale picked up where she left off, starting the scoring with a three-pointer. The Irish took a 7-3 lead, but Villanova quickly closed the gap and took a 10-9 lead of their own. The game continued in this back and forth fashion. The Irish were still performing well offensively, but like in the first round, struggled on defense. Against a stronger Villanova team, it seemed like the Irish were in for a real battle. Villanova was hitting wide-open threes and took an 18-13 lead. As Nelson, Patterson, and Shepard struggled to defend Villanova’s quick, three-point shooting offense, McGraw turned to walk-on Kaitlin Cole for some defensive help. In an unusual twist, Cole entered the game before the first quarter had even ended. The Irish held the 19-18 edge at the end of the quarter. The same back and forth game continued in the second quarter, however. While the Irish were able to score well, they just couldn’t find their footing on defense. While they did stretch the lead to five points at 39-34, they couldn’t hold it as defensive lapses allowed the Wildcats to retake the lead at 42-41. An offensive rebound and putback from Cole right before the buzzer tied the game at 45 going into halftime. The Wildcats hit 10 of 15 three-point attempts in the first half, and it felt like the Irish were going to struggle to come away with a win.

Enter Kathryn Westbeld. Irish fans were elated to see Westbeld take the court to warm up for the second half despite her injury. She is often referred to as the team’s glue player and having her on the court gave fans, and seemingly the team, a sense of increased confidence and comfort. She kicked off the third quarter by collecting a rebound on Villanova’s first shot attempt, and things only got better from there. The entire team seemed to improve their defensive effort in the second half, and kept up the offensive success. The Irish stretched the lead to 57-48 to force a Villanova timeout. Shepard and Young were shining offensively, and Westbeld provided solid defense. By the end of the third quarter the lead had grown to 20 at 73-53, as the defense held the Wildcats to 8 third quarter points. It was like a different game than the first half.

The fourth quarter provided more of the same, as the Irish continued playing better defense and collected offensive rebounds for second chance points. The Irish would outscore Villanova 27-2 on second chance points, and 19 of those came in the second half. The lead grew to 30 at 92-62, and Westbeld left the game with 4:02 remaining to a huge ovation from the crowd and a hug from McGraw. All three walk-ons were able to enter the game in the closing minutes as ND collected the 98-72 win behind 25 points from Shepard, a career-high 24 from Young, and 24 from Ogunbowale. After Villanova’s three-point party in the first half, they did not connect on a single three-pointer in the second half. The Wildcats shot 56.7% in the first half, while the Irish defense held them to 33.3% in the second half. It was a very impressive turnaround. The Irish also outrebounded the Wildcats 48-19 and outscored them in the paint 56-22. Hopefully they can keep up the scoring, but also carry forward the defensive intensity from the second half of this game.

Coming Up in the Sweet Sixteen

Saturday at 4pm Eastern, the Irish will take on Texas A&M in the Sweet Sixteen. While this game has been described as a rematch of the 2011 national championship game, it’s tough to consider it a rematch when that game happened seven years ago and featured an entirely different group of players. Nevertheless, a win would be nice for the fans who are still feeling the sting of that loss.

The Aggies hold a 26-9 record currently. They made it to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament before falling to Mississippi State. A&M got to the Sweet Sixteen with wins over Drake in the first round and DePaul in the second round. Their win over DePaul was an exciting one, requiring a comeback from a 17-point deficit. The Aggies won by a single point after their star freshman (and ESPN Freshman of the Year) Chennedy Carter connected on a three-pointer with 3.2 seconds remaining in the game. I anticipate that ND will struggle to find a way to defend Carter. She scored 37 points against DePaul, and the Irish have struggled to defend other teams’ high-scoring players this season. They may have to try some different combinations to see what works, and they will at least have to keep the rest of the Aggies from scoring easily. Texas A&M averages 77.5 points per game, one of the nation’s top-30 offenses. On the other hand, the Irish average 85.5 points per game, good for third in the nation behind UConn and Baylor. I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that this will be a high-scoring contest.

If the Irish defeat the Aggies, they will move on to the Elite Eight to face 2-seed Oregon or the Cinderella story 11-seed Central Michigan, who just knocked Ohio State out of the tournament.