Notre Dame needs to play with 'edge' in Louisville showdown
Louisville’s daunting enough without having anything special to put on its bulletin board.
Notre Dame’s Maddy Westbeld momentarily sounded like she was going to give the Cardinals something anyway.
“It’s a game that I look forward to,” Westbeld said of Sunday’s women’s basketball road matchup. “I think what makes them a great team is just their grit. They’re kind of just a dirty team … ”
At that point, the Irish forward paused, realizing how that might sound, and laughed.
“Not dirty, just play really hard,” Westbeld quickly clarified. “We’ve just gotta come out with that same edge and that same mentality.”
No. 18-ranked Notre Dame (19-5, 10-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) and No. 3 Louisville (22-2, 12-1) tangle at 2 p.m. on ESPN.
It’s a showdown loaded with ramifications for each.
The Cardinals are trying to keep pace in the loss column with No. 5 North Carolina State for first place in the ACC.
The Irish still have a mathematical shot to nab a piece of the regular-season league crown, too, but more realistically, they’re scrapping to land one of the top four spots in the standings, which would give them a coveted double bye in the ACC Tournament and boost their profile when the NCAA Tourney selection committee convenes next month.
At 10-3, ND is tied for third with Virginia Tech, while Georgia Tech and North Carolina are right behind at 9-4.
The Irish visit Georgia Tech on Thursday, and if they can win that one, they would hold tiebreakers over all three teams they’re jockeying with, having already defeated the Hokies and Tar Heels. Further, Virginia Tech has a formidable remaining slate that includes both NC State and Louisville.
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Working against the Irish, though, is the fact that they have two games against the Cardinals (the second coming Feb. 27 in the regular-season finale at home), and potentially working against them is the possibility that a twice-postponed matchup with last-place Virginia may not get rescheduled.
That could become relevant, and controversial, if ND ends up tied with somebody in the loss column, but has one less win.
As for the task at hand, coach Niele Ivey, similar to Westbeld, says the Irish need to be at their intense best.
“We’re just gonna come in there with a dog mentality, a road-warrior mentality,” Ivey said heading to Louisville. “That’s the number one thing we wanna do, regardless of what they do. They’re a great team, super well-coached, play great at home, but we have to come in with that confidence. … We have to raise our game to a higher level.”
Ivey’s not kidding about the Cardinals at home.
They’re 12-0 at the often-rocking KFC Yum! Center, where they’re also the lone team ahead of Notre Dame in average home attendance — by a wide margin — at 7,884 to 4,908.
Over the last five seasons, Louisville is 72-4 on its own court, including three straight wins over the Irish.
Conversely, ND’s just 7-5 away from Purcell Pavilion this season, with all three of its league road losses coming to teams that are .500 or below in the ACC standings.
“We’ve gotta keep our heads down and go to work, do what we know how to do,” Westbeld said after scoring 21 points in Thursday’s 69-53 win over Miami.
While Notre Dame’s 69-66 win over then-No. 3 NC State occurred at home, Ivey says it’s still evidence that the Irish ought to be able to compete with anybody regardless of venue.
The Wolfpack are the same team that handed the Cardinals their only loss over Louisville’s last 23 games, that being 68-59 on Jan. 20 in Raleigh.
“I just want us to come out with that swag,” Ivey said, “that mentality that no matter where we are, we’re gonna be one unit and we’re gonna play hard and we’re gonna play with confidence.”
Asked during this Super Bowl week whether she happens to be a Cincinnati Bengals fan, Westbeld didn’t reply with a simple yes or no.
“Who Dey! … Who Dey!” Westbeld responded, breaking into a wide grin.
For the uninitiated, she wasn’t answering the question with a question, but sharing a rallying cry popular among Bengal fans for decades.
Westbeld’s from Kettering, Ohio, about an hour north of Cincinnati.
She’s not the only Irish player with an eye on Sunday night’s showdown between the Bengals and Los Angeles Rams.
Abby Prohaska’s from Liberty Township, a scant half-hour north of Cincy.
“Abby’s definitely, probably a bigger Bengals fan than I am,” Westbeld shared, adding that “I root for anybody from Ohio.”
Still another ND player, walk-on Trinity Cha, is from Irvine, Calif., about 40 minutes from LA.
No word on Cha’s rooting choice, or level, although at least two others affiliated with the Irish women are not enthused to see the Rams’ presence in the game.
Both Ivey and fifth-year director of communications Josh Bates happen to be from St. Louis, the city the Rams vacated after 21 years when they moved back to LA in 2016.
Bates acknowledged that he’ll be rooting against Los Angeles.
“My brother probably is (anti-Rams, too),” Ivey said with a laugh when informed of Bates’ stand, “because he was a big St. Louis Rams fan. I’m curious to watch the game just because it’s a lot of fun to watch, but I’m neutral.”
Traveling by air, the Irish should be back in town in time for kickoff.
This is the fourth straight year that the Irish play on the same day as the Super Bowl, and the second straight time at Louisville.
Last season’s 71-65 loss to the Cardinals snapped ND’s streak of nine straight wins on Super Sundays, dropping the program to 10-3 on the occasion overall.
The Irish were perfect on Super Sundays during Muffet McGraw’s 33 years at 8-0.
One of those Sundays was the Indianapolis Colts’ win over the Chicago Bears in 2007.
Further, the start of that nine-game ND winning streak on Super Sundays came in 1986, the same day Chicago won its lone Super Bowl.
So, yes, Bear fans, sorry, that does mean your team hasn't won a Super Bowl since before Muffet McGraw landed at Notre Dame.