Notre Dame is back, and ready to return to the top

Maddy Westbeld launches a shot over Wake Forest defenders. AP file photo.

The bell had been rung, and Maddy Westbeld answered the call.

Her Notre Dame Fighting Irish had just lost to the North Carolina Tar Heels earlier this month, and were looking to bounce back against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons four days later.

The Irish won going away 86-47, due to Westbeld maybe playing the best game of her career so far with 25 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals. This is the sophomore’s second-ever 25-point game, having previously scored as much as a freshman, and this season it is the most points that any Notre Dame player has scored so far.

Westbeld has really stepped up her game this year averaging 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. It’s just one of the ways that she is actively following in the footsteps of her sister, Kat, who also played for the Irish and helped earn them an NCAA title five years ago.

“This year, I’ve been more of a rim protector, just getting more blocks, getting more steals and deflections and all those little stats, just doing all the dirty things on defense and just being there for my teammates, being in that spot when I need to be,” Westbeld said.

Her emergence has served as the perfect metaphor for the resurgence of an Irish program that had a bit of a downfall after their championship win, falling out of the AP top 25 poll and culminating in the retirement of Naismith Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw. In current head coach Niele Ivey’s third season, they are currently 16-2 overall and 7-1 in conference play, which is good for second in the ACC.

Coming off of a season where they advanced to the Sweet 16 after not even making it to the Tournament in Ivey’s first year, the team is loaded with talent. It starts with Westbeld, who is one of the top front court players in the land, and one of the nation’s best point guards in sophomore Olivia Miles (15.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 2.3 steals per game).

Ivey has other talented players like Sonia Citron (13.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks per game), Lauren Ebo (9.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game), and she sees things coming together nicely.

“I feel like this year, understanding and knowing what it takes, having the opportunity to actually be one possession away from going further than the Sweet 16, that experience I think is really going to help us and catapult us to hopefully go further than we did last year,” Ivey said.

The experience has definitely been a major factor in their performance this year, as they are an even better two-way team, as they are averaging 79.7 points per game – second-most in the conference – and their defense is third-best, as Notre Dame allows just 58 points per outing. 

Their exceptional offense can definitely be attributed to the fact that they lead the ACC in team assists, with 17.9 per game. A lot of that is due to Miles’ shepherding of the offense, as she does lead the conference individually in assists. She has phenomenal court vision, she is great at pushing the pace in transition and is just a great all-around player.

The fact that Miles has such great chemistry with her teammates comes from what she does both on and off the court. On it, she has known Citron since they were both members of the U.S.A. Women’s Basketball U16 National Team, and has played together with Westbeld for almost three years now.

Off the court, many of the players hang out together every day, doing things such as watching movies and going shopping. They also often make trips to Chicago, where the aunt of one of the players has a condo, and they are able to explore the city, go shopping and attend NBA games, having recently attended the Nets-Bulls game on Jan. 4.

Their relationships are based on honesty.

“Though we are super-close, we do hold each other accountable,” Miles said. “We’re always making each other better and it’s just a fun experience to play with them every day.”

Olivia Miles and coach Niele Ivey share a hug after a win. Fighting Irish Media photo.

That sense of accountability and having each other’s back is something that was instilled in this team by Ivey. She is always challenging all of her players to do better, especially given that she too once wore that uniform and was a part of the 2001 title team.

Ivey knows what it’s like to have a lot of pressure on her to succeed – especially since she succeeded McGraw. Ivey feels that she let the pressure get to her during her first season in 2020, at a time where there was not only a global pandemic as well as racial strife, but she also had to rebuild the team after the entire starting lineup declared for the 2019 WNBA draft.

“I think I focused on mostly just trying to be the best that I could be, trying to be myself, not trying to be Muffet McGraw, but just to be myself, and then rely on my knowledge and also my passion and the experience that I had as an assistant coach,” Ivey said.

As a former assistant coach for both the Irish and the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, Ivey learned how to help young players reach their fullest potential, and since she was in charge of recruiting when she was an assistant, she knows to recruit the right players and make sure that they are in the best position to thrive.

“You don’t try to handcuff them,” McGraw said. “You don’t try to slow them down. You let them be creative. You let them play to their strengths, and I think that’s what they’re doing.”

Notre Dame is definitely playing to their greatest strengths right now, as since their second loss of the season they have won four games in a row, and they are scoring an average of 73 points per game while allowing just 53 points.

Ivey wanted her team to be more defensive-minded, and to shoot the ball better after that loss, and they have done both with a combined shooting percentage of 46 percent in all four of these wins, while only allowing their opponents to shoot a combined 34 percent from the field.

“I think that when you’re a really good offensive team like they are, I think sometimes, you can be a little relaxed on defense because your mentality is more of ‘well, we’re just gonna outscore them’ and I think that when they learn that if they could stop people, it’s going to help them on days when they don’t shoot the ball well, and I don’t think they’ve learned that yet,” McGraw said.

No. 7 Notre Dame’s defense will be tested tonight, as they face the top-scoring team in the league in No. 24 Florida State, which averages 85.8 points per game. They also feature the league’s leading scorer, freshman Ta’Niya Latson, who averages 23.6 points per game. Another test for the Irish defense in the season’s second half will be against Louisville, as they must try to slow down 75-points-per-game sharpshooting guard Hailey Van Lith.

Other marquee matchups will be against No. 20 NC State and No. 16 Duke on Jan. 29 and Feb. 5, respectively. Both games have the potential to turn into defensive slugfests, as the Blue Devils allow opponents just 51 points per outing, and the Wolfpack, 60.7.

“In the ACC, this is in my opinion the hardest conference in the country,” Miles said. “Playing in this league, it’s amazing just for the experience, and just the preparedness we get for the (NCAA) Tournament is unmatched.”

Ivey has set a different goal in each season she has been Notre Dame’s head coach. This year, the aim is to win a national championship, despite the loss of starting guard Dara Mabrey for the season last weekend, with an ACL tear.

After defeating archrival UConn by 14 points in December, Ivey reiterated to her team what their standard was, and that they must match it every day.

Westbeld is familiar with this standard and culture, having been on the sideline at the 2018 Final Four and witnessing both game-winners by Arike Ogunbowale in the semifinal and national championship games, respectively. Watching her sister winning a championship as a member of her favorite team has inspired her to this day.

“Seeing just that whole team, their chemistry and their grit and toughness and seeing their practices growing up, it really instilled something in me to just try and bring that to my team,” Westbeld said.