SOUTH BEND — One Notre Dame women’s basketball mystery may last forever — that being how multiple members of the program got COVID-19 — while another will arrive at an answer soon — that being whether these bubble-riding Irish will get into the NCAA Tournament.
Notre Dame returns to action Monday night at Pittsburgh after having two games last week postponed in response to personnel within the program testing positive for the coronavirus.
Irish coach Niele Ivey shared late Sunday afternoon that all individuals who initially tested positive in advance of the postponements are “healthy at this point.”
She added that two players will not be available Monday night, but declined to say who they are or whether those absences are due to COVID or other reasons.
Ivey also said she could not share exactly how many individuals within the program initially tested positive or whether the breakdown included both players and non-playing personnel.
Not that she has all the answers, anyway.
“I wish we could have information that can trace exactly how we contracted it, but unfortunately we don’t have that information,” Ivey said, “so it’s just kind of going off each day and staying as safe as we can.”
Notre Dame’s last game, a competitive 71-65 loss on Feb. 7 at then-No. 1 Louisville, was played in front of 2,912 people. Prior to that, the Irish had not played in front of more than 523 people this season.
Ivey did not want to connect those particular dots, but added that her players were continuing to conduct themselves as vigilantly as she gave them credit for doing earlier this season.
“They were completely following all the safety protocols,” Ivey said.
The coach found out the morning of Friday, Feb. 12, in a text from a trainer that the Irish would have to pause activities indefinitely due to the multiple positive tests.
ND’s scheduled visit to North Carolina State on Monday, Feb. 15, was postponed, and then on that Monday, last Thursday’s home contest against Syracuse was also postponed.
Still, the Irish were ultimately able to make a rapid turnaround as far as practice goes.
“We resumed after we had three negative tests, which was the following Tuesday,” Ivey said. “Just grateful that we didn’t have any more positives within the program.”
Now ND (8-8, 6-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) is left to make its final charge toward NCAA Tourney consideration. Monday’s game will be followed by home contests against Florida State (9-6, 8-6) on Thursday and No. 3 Louisville (20-2, 13-2) on Sunday. That will be followed by the ACC Tournament.
“It’s very important to us,” grad-student guard Destinee Walker said emphatically on Sunday of making the NCAA field. “We have the 24-tournament streak (as a program) going. We’re trying to keep that going this year. I mean it’s really important to everyone on our team. We constantly talk about it. … We keep communicating that to each other, so we’re just trying to go out there and secure these wins.”
ESPN’s most recent projections for the 64-team bracket had the Irish as the first team out.
Particularly in Louisville and Florida State — which upset the Cardinals on Sunday — ND does still have opportunities, though, to turn heads within the selection committee.
“I know it’s going to be really hard getting into the tournament,” Ivey said, adding that she’s paying closer attention to the possibilities than before with the season winding down.
She said that the Irish may be able “to control our own narrative” at least some by virtue of the quality of the last two regular-season opponents.
First up, though, is not looking past Pitt, a game that will mark ND’s first in 15 days.
“Hopefully, with having a pause, we’ll be a little more rested, which is good,” Ivey said, “and hopefully we can get out and really have an up-tempo game and play good basketball.”
Ivey called the last few workouts by the team “productive,” and said her team’s defensive effort and responding to the Panthers’ changing defenses will be the keys Monday.
“We’ve had some pretty tough practices this week and we’re just preparing accordingly,” Walker said. “We’re ready to get these three games going.”
Walker said Sunday that she does plan on making this her final collegiate season.
Because of the pandemic, the NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility to virtually all players.
Walker, though, is already in her sixth year between her time at North Carolina and at Notre Dame, having been awarded an extra season twice due to injuries.
“I’m looking at playing professionally after this year,” said Walker, ND’s No. 3 scorer at 12.2 points per game, “so that’s my personal decision.”
Recently, fourth-year Irish center Mikki Vaughn said she has not ruled out making this her last season as well, even though she could be eligible for up to two more based on her circumstances.