Notre Dame women's basketball get No. 5 seed in Bridgeport Regional

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
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SOUTH BEND — Based on Notre Dame’s body of work this women’s basketball season, Sam Brunelle and Anaya Peoples knew intellectually that the Irish were comfortably going to be part of the NCAA Tournament well before Sunday night’s selection show ever confirmed it.

But emotionally?

Emotionally, there was still that microscopic sliver of doubt simply based on the wait for this that both have experienced.

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“I think it took me a second when I saw the screen,” Brunelle said of processing the information shortly after ND’s destination was announced.

Just like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s our name up there on the screen on ESPN,’” Brunelle said. “This is my first time going, and I’m a junior, so the wait’s been long, and I’m excited to actually get to go now.”

The Irish (22-8) were assigned a No. 5 seed and pitted against No. 12 seed Massachusetts (26-6) in a first-round game Saturday in Norman, Okla., at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2, WQLQ 99.9 FM)

The fourth-seeded host Sooners (24-8) will face No. 13 seed IUPUI (24-4) that same day at that same venue, with the survivors of the two contests facing off two days later for the right to advance to the Sweet 16 as part of the Bridgeport (Conn.) Regional.

Jan 27, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Niele Ivey high fives guard Olivia Miles (5) as she leaves the court in the second half against the Syracuse Orange at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

“First, I have to say, ‘Finally!’” a beaming Peoples exclaimed to begin a huddle with the media Sunday during a team viewing party at Purcell Pavilion.

“Finally making it into the tournament, I’m just so excited and so happy for this team, for the coaches, our fans, and we’re ready to do work,” Peoples said. “We’re gonna go out there and prove a lot of people wrong.”

The ND guard called Sunday’s announcement “an incredible feeling. … It’s like all your hard work finally paid off.”

“I don’t know if we were nervous,” Peoples said. “It was more just anticipation, just finally seeing your name on there for the first time. ‘Notre Dame, 5 seed.’”

Peoples and Brunelle arrived at ND together in 2019.

At the time, Brunelle was a consensus top-five recruit nationally, Peoples was a consensus top-20, and the Irish had just wrapped up their 24th consecutive NCAA Tourney appearance with a runner-up finish.

There was little reason when they first committed to expect that streak to be snapped.

Except that junior Jackie Young later decided to join ND’s four senior starters in the WNBA draft, removing that star-player bridge that coach Muffet McGraw had envisioned to lead the Irish through a transition season and back into the next NCAA Tourney.

“I knew it was going to be difficult, because they lost that whole group when I came in,” Brunelle said, “but I didn’t believe that we couldn’t make it.”

Ultimately, of course, nobody made it to the NCAA Tourney in 2020, because it was canceled due to the pandemic, but the Irish, at 13-18, weren’t going to qualify anyway.

Then last season, after Notre Dame made another major transition, this one from McGraw’s retirement to rookie head coach Niele Ivey, the Irish bounced back some at 10-10, but closed narrowly out of the field thanks to an upset ACC Tourney loss to Clemson.

The selection committee, because it had to reveal its alternates under COVID guidelines, shared that the Irish were the third team out.

“The feeling I had last year, it obviously didn’t set well,” Ivey said Sunday evening. “My whole goal for the whole summer and everything I’ve been working towards this year with this staff has been to get us back. … So it’s super special.”

At times over the last few weeks, it appeared ND might even get a coveted top-four seed, meaning the Irish would’ve been one of the 16 teams awarded the benefit of hosting during the first two rounds.

A 71-53 win over Georgia Tech in the ACC Tourney quarterfinals last week buoyed those chances, but then ND was sideswiped off that course with a 57-54 upset loss to Miami in the semis.

“That’s why we’re seeded where we’re at now,” Brunelle said, “but that’s OK, because we’re excited to go to Oklahoma and take care of business. I think no matter where we ended up, we would think that, so we’re excited for the future.”

Late to the party

Ivey was slightly tardy to Sunday’s viewing party after watching son Jaden play for Purdue in the Big Ten men’s tourney championship against Iowa in Indianapolis.

That game ended around 5:35 p.m., with the ND women’s watch event starting at 7:30 and the selection show starting at 8.

“I lost 15 minutes trying to get out of the parking garage,” Ivey said. “I was like, just get me here right at 8, but then I was sitting, waiting. I knew I would be cutting it close.”

The coach was equipped with a Zoom hookup to the watch party so she could keep abreast of what was happening.

“I wasn’t watching, I was listening,” Ivey emphasized with a smile.

She estimated she was about six minutes away from Purcell when ND’s matchup against UMass was announced.

“I was literally coming into South Bend,” Ivey said. “Almost made it.”

Even with her late arrival, the coach had stayed in touch with her players during the day.

“We’ve had amazing texts and chats today,” Ivey said. “Been face-timing them on my way up here.”

Because ND was on spring break this past week, there was more flexibility for all during a time frame in which rest and recovery was an emphasis anyway.

Ivey took advantage of the opportunity to leave town for the weekend on Friday and was able to catch all three of Jaden’s Big Ten tourney games over three straight days.

“We practiced throughout the week,” Ivey said, “then two days off Saturday and Sunday.”

Prohaska back

Notre Dame's Abby Prohaska (12) during an NCAA basketball game against Ohio on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin)

Ivey shared that Abby Prohaska is ready to go for the NCAA Tournament after missing the last nine games.

“She looks great,” Ivey said of Prohaska participating in practice throughout last week.

The senior guard suffered an eye socket injury in ND’s win over No. 3-ranked North Carolina State on Feb. 1 and later underwent surgery.

She was in uniform for the two ACC Tourney games, but did not play.

“She didn’t get a chance to really go full-go offensively in practice before the ACC Tournament,” Ivey said of holding Prohaska back.

With Prohaska, Notre Dame is expected to have eight scholarship players available. Nat Marshall remains out after knee surgery and Katlyn Gilbert has been out due to personal reasons.

Prohaska is one of just two players on the Irish roster with NCAA Tourney experience, having appeared in all six of ND’s games when she was a freshman in 2019.

The other is grad transfer Maya Dodson, who appeared in seven for Stanford across the 2018 and 2019 tourneys, the last of those happening to come against the Irish in an Elite Eight matchup that ND won 84-68 in Chicago.