Who are the Irish?
That may be one of the trickier questions facing the NCAA Tournament women’s basketball selection committee as it continues deliberations through March 15 to determine its 64-team field.
Is Notre Dame the team that’s knocked off both Georgia Tech and Florida State — the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tourney — or the the team that’s fallen to both No. 11 seed Clemson and basement seed Boston College, that latter defeat accounting for one of the Eagles’ only two league wins all season?
The Irish (10-9, 8-7) are, of course, both those teams, but they did later avenge that BC loss, and they can do likewise concerning the Clemson disaster when they face the Tigers (10-12, 5-12) Thursday during the second round of the ACC Tourney in Greensboro, N.C.
“I’ve kind of addressed the team that this is our opportunity to make a push for ourselves, so they know the magnitude of this moment, of this ACC Tournament and where we are,” Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey said Tuesday afternoon. “(The selection committee) can only bring a certain amount of teams from the ACC.”
The consensus is that the committee will select at least seven and maybe eight from the ultra-respected league. Louisville coach Jeff Walz, although his No. 5-ranked regular-season champion Cardinals don’t need to worry, pushed earlier this week for as many as nine teams.
As of Wednesday, the Irish were projected by ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme as exactly the last team, and the eighth from the ACC, in the field. They’d be an 11 seed.
Based on Creme’s assessment, it appears ND can’t afford another bad loss — as one against Clemson might be construed — with no games left to make up for it.
At the same time, the Irish aren’t likely to be downgraded should they beat the Tigers and lose a competitive contest in the quarterfinals to Georgia Tech.
The first part of that equation, however, is no given considering the way host Clemson spanked ND in mid-December, 78-55, a result accounting for both the Tigers’ most lopsided league win and Notre Dame’s most lopsided loss all season.
Since that meeting, the Irish have gone 7-5 and Clemson has nosedived at 2-11, including losses in its last six outings.
Ivey, though, remains wary of a group whose victims include Florida State and Syracuse, and whose losses include seven by single digits.
“They have athleticism, they have depth, they play hard, they’re going to pressure us for 40 minutes,” Ivey said, “so it’s going to be a battle.”
If it is, it’ll be an improvement for ND. In December, the Tigers led 54-27 by midway through the third quarter on their way to moving to 3-1 in the league, 8-1 overall.
Notre Dame committed 11 turnovers in the first 14 minutes. Clemson finished with an 18-2 advantage in second-chance points.
Maddy Westbeld, named ACC Rookie of the Year and an all-league first-teamer this week, recorded what remains her lowest-scoring Irish performance with six points and a 1-of-9 afternoon from the field.
“I think from that point, we have grown so much as a team,” Westbeld said Tuesday, “and with new additions — we have Liv (Olivia Miles) now — I think we’re a different team definitely when she’s on the floor. She contributes so much to us.”
The highly touted Miles debuted Jan. 24 as an early enrollee.
She’s been “a sponge,” per Ivey, in terms of ability and willingness to learn quickly, and she’s given the Irish a true point guard, “something I didn’t have before,” according to the coach.
Despite Miles’ quick acclimation, Ivey indicated that she’s likely to stick with the freshman coming off the bench in the ACC Tourney.
“I’m happy with my rotations right now,” said Ivey, who’s been able to strengthen ND’s depth significantly between the return of players from early-season injuries and the arrival of Miles.
Ivey said junior guard Abby Prohaska, after missing the last three games for personal reasons, will be back in uniform in Greensboro. Prohaska’s career high of 12 points came during that last meeting with Clemson.