Women's basketball: Plenty at stake as Irish host No. 4 Louisville
SOUTH BEND — On the eve of the biggest game so far this season, Dara Mabrey revealed something that shapes up big next season.
“Yeah, I’m coming back,” the Notre Dame women’s basketball senior guard said with a smile Saturday afternoon after initially hesitating at the question.
“I kind of just knew all along,” Mabrey said of when she made the decision. “Especially because I transferred, I just wanted to play here as long as I possibly could, just knowing this program is going to continue to get better.
“The fact that I have another year to accomplish everything we have on our list is super exciting,” said Mabrey, who arrived at ND last season after two years at Virginia Tech, “and I just couldn’t imagine passing that up.”
Mabrey, like nearly all players who were enrolled at the time, is eligible for a fifth playing year under NCAA policy in response to last winter’s COVD-altered season.
With power forward Maya Dodson pursuing another season at Notre Dame as well, the No. 14-ranked Irish (21-6, 13-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) could have all five starters back next winter, plus at least the two subs in juniors Sam Brunelle and Anaya Peoples who have logged the most minutes this year.
Dodson’s case is less clear-cut than Mabrey’s given that she opted to sit out last season altogether at Stanford and that she’s already a grad transfer.
On the other hand, this current season is just her fourth one on a game court, and she only played nine games in her final one at Stanford. Irish coach Niele Ivey has expressed optimism concerning the NCAA’s decision.
What about the game?
That big game is Sunday’s noon invasion by No. 4 Louisville (24-3, 15-2).
Plenty is at stake for Irish, including an opportunity to enhance their NCAA Tournament résumé, an opportunity to complete a perfect home regular season and an opportunity to inch up from their already assured No. 4 seed and double bye in next week’s ACC Tourney to a No. 3 spot (which they’ll get anyway if Virginia Tech loses Sunday night to third-ranked North Carolina State).
Most of all, though, Sunday represents an opportunity to show more against the Cardinals than just two weeks ago when host Louisville whipped ND 73-47.
“It’s a chance to get a little bit of payback,” Ivey said Saturday. “I don’t feel like we showed Louisville who we really were. I just want us to play our style of basketball, because I don’t think we did that for 40 minutes the last game.”
A couple things did conspire against that.
In a contest that the Irish were down to just seven healthy scholarship players — they still are — Brunelle suffered a game-ending shoulder sprain late in the first quarter after playing just 2:34 and scoring four quick points.
ND was up 13-12 at the time.
Then at the 3:54 mark of the second quarter, Dodson was whistled for her second foul with the Irish trailing just 21-19.
She sat for the rest of the half and the Cardinals pounced, outscoring the Irish 11-2 for a 32-21 lead at the break.
In front of a rocking home crowd listed at 10,056, the hosts didn’t let up after that, either, scoring the first 11 points of the third quarter to effectively put the game away at 43-21.
“We have to be better under pressure,” Mabrey said of the rematch. “Louisville obviously likes to make it a fast game, but then slow you down on their defensive end with a press and a bunch of different mechanisms.”
For Mabrey, it was perhaps the most disastrous day of her career. ND’s top 3-point shooter finished scoreless on eight shots from the field over 32 minutes.
“I got some easy shots in there, but they weren’t falling,” said Mabrey, who did score 17 points when she was a Hokie freshman against the Cardinals. “It wasn’t a good team performance (either), but I know I need to knock down some shots.”
Ivey called her team’s offense at Louisville “the most stagnant we’ve been in a long time. Our shot selection wasn’t what we wanted or what we prepared. I don’t think we did a great job of establishing our inside presence. That’s something we’ve been working on.”
Ivey said Abby Prohaska remains out while continuing to recover from recent eye socket surgery, but added that the senior guard might be able to return in time for next week’s ACC Tourney.
Prohaska was injured during ND’s 69-66 win over No. 3 North Carolina State on Feb. 1.
“I can definitely sympathize with her,” Brunelle said of Prohaska, a close friend since before their Irish days together. “She’s a great person, a great player, and she’s probably the hardest-working person on the team by far. It always sucks to see her when she has an injury, because she works really hard to be on the court.”
South Bend native, former Irish superstar and reigning Olympic gold medalist Skylar Diggins-Smith is expected to attend Sunday’s game and be introduced during a first-quarter timeout.
ND sports information director Josh Bates said he’s not sure when Diggins-Smith last made a introduction-involved game appearance at Purcell Pavilion, but said it was before he arrived in 2017.
Diggins-Smith, who completed her Irish career in 2013, plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA. She’s a teammate of fellow ND alum Brianna Turner.