Durable Dara Mabrey finally gets her shot at NCAA Tournament

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
Jan 16, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Dara Mabrey (1) celebrates after a three point basket in the first half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND — You’d be hard-pressed, like full court-pressed, to find a basketball player anywhere in the country who has been a more intimate part of the NCAA Tournament without ever playing in the NCAA Tournament than Dara Mabrey.

It started with the Notre Dame guard growing up watching big sisters Michaela and Marina Mabrey combine to appear in seven straight NCAA Tourneys, including one together, with four title-game appearances between them for the Irish.

“I sat in the Notre Dame section with all the fans and the parents and I remember recording Arike hitting those two shots,” Dara recalled this week of Ogunbowale’s fabled game-winners in both rounds of the 2018 Final Four to help lift Marina and company to that title.

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Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith passes the ball to teammate Chelsea Hall away from Notre Dame’s Dara Mabrey. Feb. 13, 2022

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Dara Mabrey was a high school senior back then, so it was part of a natural timeline that she wasn’t going to be on the court for an NCAA Tourney game quite yet.

But then she had her face pressed up even closer against that NCAA Tourney glass, in a more teasing and more painful way, two years later in 2020.

She was a leading player on a Virginia Tech club sure to make its first appearance in 14 years, only to watch that year’s event abruptly go poof because of COVID.

So pardon Mabrey if she won’t quite fully believe she’s finally, genuinely in the NCAA field until Saturday night’s first-round ND game against Massachusetts tips with her on the floor and the clock ticking.

“I’m a little shocked right now,” Mabrey shared after Sunday evening’s selection show, even though the Irish were a sure thing to make the field. “There’s a lot of emotions, but I would just say excitement has taken over.”

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Not being in an NCAA Tourney until now is only part of Mabrey’s career that hasn’t gone precisely as she imagined.

Coming out of high school, the Belmar, N.J., native was initially offered a scholarship by the Irish. She was interested, but another player’s quicker decision to pick ND led to that offer disappearing.

Mabrey pivoted nicely. As a freshman at Tech, she started immediately, ranked third in the nation in 3-point percentage at 46.2, set a program record for made 3-pointers, averaged 11.2 points and helped the Hokies (22-12) earn a WNIT bid.

Then as a sophomore, Mabrey averaged 11.9 points and helped engineer a four-game leap in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings to 11-7, accompanied by a 21-9 mark overall, setting the stage for that certain NCAA Tourney bid.

“COVID took that away,” Mabrey said matter of factly this week, adding that it didn’t leave her angry, just frustrated.

“COVID was COVID,” Mabrey said. “It never took away from the hard work and the dedication I put in personally and with my teammates.”

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The pandemic’s impact continued to factor in after Mabrey transferred to ND in June 2020, with new head coach Niele Ivey denied a traditional first full season of preparation with the Irish, who went 10-10 and narrowly missed the NCAA Tourney as the committee’s designated third team out.

“COVID made its run, but at the end of the day, you gotta remember why you’re here and what you did to get here,” Mabrey said.

“I’m so excited. This group is really special,” she added of the 22-8 Irish, who are expected to have just eight scholarship players available. “Small group, but I really can’t wait to see what we can do in this tournament. We’ve got a lot of heart and a lot of great potential.”

Mabrey says her winding road of experiences toward this moment — from watching her sisters play tourney games, to having to handle both off guard and point guard duties during her time both at Tech and at ND, to helping the Hokies go 2-1 in that 2019 WNIT — have all helped shape her.

“We’re ready, and I know exactly what we need to do,” Mabrey said.

“March is a different kind of game,” she added. “Everyone’s going to give you their best game. It comes down to executing and sticking with what you know how to do best.”

Though she still hasn’t appeared in her first NCAA Tourney game — while teammate Maya Dodson appeared in seven of them at Stanford and Abby Prohaska in six as an ND freshman in 2019 — it’s nonetheless Mabrey who is decisively the team’s most seasoned college player overall at 114 games, and one of the nation’s most durable, having started every contest her teams have played over four seasons.

For her, that background is accompanied by responsibility, and by confidence.

“I was a sponge my first three years,” Mabrey said, “and now I can finally spread that knowledge to the rest of my teammates.”