HomeBasketballNotre Dame dismantles Ole Miss, reaches Sweet 16 for third straight season

Notre Dame dismantles Ole Miss, reaches Sweet 16 for third straight season


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Yolett McPhee-McCuin had her hands on her hips and her eyes burning a hole in the court at Purcell Pavilion. When Notre Dame is at its best, the Fighting Irish can have that effect on opposing head coaches.

Notre Dame was at its best Monday.

The play that had Ole Miss’ McPhee-McCuin at a loss for words and answers was a below-the-bucket act of wizardry from senior center Nat Marshall. She spun off her defender then spun the ball off the backboard and through the net with just a peripheral glance at where she was putting it, if any at all.

Didn’t matter. Bucket, Notre Dame. The No. 2 seed Irish had a lot of ’em in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, enough to send the No. 7 seed Rebels — the same ones that dispatched No. 1 seed Stanford from the big dance in the same round one year ago — back to Mississippi with a 71-56 loss.

Notre Dame earned a spot in the Sweet 16, where it will face No. 3 seed Oregon State in Albany on Friday, for the third consecutive season under head coach Niele Ivey. It’s the second straight year the Irish got that far despite losing a player to a season-ending knee injury within weeks of the tournament starting, too.

“This one is really, really special,” Ivey said. “Obviously going to the Sweet 16 with this group, this is a special group, so all glory to God, number one. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been through a lot this season. We’ve had a lot of highs and lows, a lot of adversity, and to see this group just find a way to come together to persevere through all of our adversity is something special.”

McPhee-McCuin reminded reporters Sunday that Notre Dame is a two seed and Ole Miss is a seven seed and that the two teams were given those numbers for good reason. Notre Dame sent several reminders again on Monday. The Irish certainly were the better team, nearly from start to finish; the Rebels scored the game’s first bucket and led for 19 seconds, but that was it. Notre Dame led for 38:32.

The Irish’s zone defense rattled the Rebels early. They scored the first basket on an aggressive take to the rim and a plucky offensive rebound then put-back. That was the worry for Notre Dame going in — that Ole Miss was going to send everything to the paint with a much deeper array of healthy players than the Irish have available.

ND took that narrative and threw it right back in the opposition’s face.

“The mindset was to attack,” Ivey said.

So attack, the Irish did.

They were the ones getting to their spots offensively, forcing the Rebels into some uncomfortable defensive positions. They couldn’t guard without fouling far too often. Notre Dame attempted nine free throws in the first half. Ole Miss, as a team, shot one.

“That’s big when we’re able to be that aggressive,” said freshman point guard Hannah Hidalgo, who was 7 of 9 from the free throw line. “It just makes us so much harder to guard because when we’re driving, the defense has to start collapsing and now we have shooters out on the corners, on the wings, that are able to knock down those shots, and we’ve been doing a great job of knocking those threes down, so it was matter of continuing to be aggressive and drawing the contact.”

Senior forward Maddy Westbeld led the way in capitalizing off Notre Dame’s dribble drives, of which she had a few of her own. She had her three-point stroke working from the top of the key, and she was lethal just inside that spot in the midrange game. She finished with a game-high 20 points.

The other two-thirds of the Irish’s big three weren’t far behind. Freshman point guard Hannah Hidalgo had 19. Junior guard Sonia Citron had 17. Notre Dame is hard to beat when that trio goes for 56 on their own — as many as the entire Ole Miss team mustered.

“They just really showed up,” McPhee-McCuin said.

Oregon State could very well figure out how tough the Irish are when those three players are playing as well as they did Monday. If they do, it’ll mean Notre Dame has advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time in Ivey’s four-year tenure as head coach. And it will also likely mean they didn’t do it all on their own.

Remember, it was Marshall who gave McPhee-McCuin a look of defeat an hour before her team was actually defeated. And it was graduate student guard Anna DeWolfe, playing in her second ever NCAA Tournament game, who chipped in nine points and chipped a nearly impossible touch pass ahead to Hidalgo for an easy back-breaking layup in the fourth quarter.

Role players matter too. Notre Dame might be down to just a few of them — Marshall, DeWolfe, sophomore guard KK Bransford and graduate student forward Becky Obinma — because of the injury situation, but all the Irish need is a little here and a little there from them anyway. Monday, they got that. Friday, the goal is to get it again.

“It starts with one of us setting the tone,” Westbeld said. “But I think Nat, AD, KK coming in, Becky, I think everybody just feeds off of that. When they see that we are locked in and we are focused, we’re there to play, we’re there to compete, I think everybody just — they come to play, too.”

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