Analysis: Despite tough ending, Notre Dame women's Sweet 16 season grades out promisingly

By Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — In the 40 seasons now that Notre Dame women’s basketball has been intent on playing a Division I schedule, only one Irish team has ever improved more than this winter’s did.

That happened in 1987-88, Muffet McGraw’s first season, when she spun her initial magic by taking ND from 12-15 to 20-8, a jump of .270 in winning percentage.

The 2021-22 Irish vaulted from 10-10 to 24-9, a comparable leap of .227 in win percentage, and much like her Hall of Fame predecessor, it might as well have been Niele Ivey’s first season, too.

It was the first one in which she had the benefit of a traditional offseason to prepare her players her way, not that there wasn’t also something special about her actual rookie effort, an advancement from 13-18 to 10-10 under the bizarre circumstances that accompanied the pandemic.

March Madness:Notre Dame's Ivey keeps close eye on son Jaden at Purdue as NCAA tournaments rolls on

Post-season awards:Citron named ACC Freshman of Year, Miles on first-team

Then in this second go-around — one with two freshmen and a transfer blended into starting roles, no less — the surge was even more substantial.

Nobody invested in that growth is easily digesting the sour way it all ended Saturday with a 66-63 loss to top-seeded, No. 3-ranked, national title hopeful North Carolina State in a Sweet 16 matchup that the Irish led most of the way, including 59-51 with six minutes to go, but that showing still punctuated that ND could play with anybody.

As good as the Irish were, other than those two inexplicably lopsided losses to No. 4 kryptonite club Louisville, they were teasingly close to better, as four of their losses came by three points or fewer and another in overtime.

Now comes the possibility of all five starters back next season — transfer Maya Dodson has petitioned the NCAA for a fifth playing year, something the association is awarding most players under COVID circumstances.

Jan 27, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Olivia Miles (5) drives to the basket as Syracuse Orange guard Christianna Carr (43) defends in the second half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, at least the top seven players in minutes could return, joined by two-time Ohio Ms. Basketball KK Bransford.

For her own part, the coach shared a take that incorporated both a sense of satisfaction and a sense of unfinished business.

On the one hand, “I’m just happy that the transition has happened so fast, because I know it doesn’t normally happen that fast,” Ivey said after Saturday’s loss. “I was told, ‘Oh, you’re going to need three to four years.' Well, I needed one.”

On the other, “I’m excited to get back to work,” Ivey offered. “Maybe I’ll take 24 hours off, and then I’m going to start watching film and get back to work, because that’s what this is. This is a grind.”

A grind that was maybe made a pinch easier by virtue of the 2021-22 results.

“What we showed as a program and as a team,” Ivey said, “I hope that attracts even more talented players to want to play for this family.”

FINAL TEAM STATISTICS

Translating into grades

Roughly midseason (14 games to be exact), we applied grades to how the Irish were doing.

Grading’s not necessarily fun, but it’s an effort to take an objective, specific stand, and because it was attempted at midseason, we will, at least for this season, wrap that way.

► Mid-term:A decent midseason report card for Ivey's Irish

A couple things. The effort here is to apply these with a production-focused, bottom-line mentality. There’s also a mindfulness, though, of what the program or individual has indicated at some point as an expectation of oneself, as well as a mindfulness of the baseline already established within a given area or by a said individual.

One change — at midseason, bench players were graded individually, but because the Irish established a clear first five, the bench is addressed collectively here.

As a refresher, the midseason grades are listed.

Offense — A

Mid-season — A-minus

Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey, left, celebrates with Sonia Citron (11) and Maya Dodson (0) in the second half of a second-round game against Oklahoma in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament Monday, March 21, 2022, in Norman, Okla. (AP Photo/ Mitch Alcala)

The Irish not only closed at 34th among 356 Division I teams in points per possession, but were even more dangerous in the NCAA Tournament.

They posted 89 points in the opening round against UMass, set a bunch of records while erupting for 108 against host Oklahoma in the second round, then put a respectable 63 on an NC State club that was allowing an average of 57.

Defense — B-plus

Mid-season — B

Feb 24, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Maya Dodson (0) blocks the shot attempt by Clemson Tigers guard Delicia Washington (00) in the second half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Irish closed at 78th in the nation in points allowed per possession, actually well down from their midseason spot of 47th.

However, the back half of the schedule was decidedly the tougher portion.

In reality, ND became more bought-in, and became more multi-dimensional with an uptick both in zone and in man.

Rebounding — B-plus

Mid-season — A-minus

Feb 3, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Sonia Citron (11) grabs a rebound in front of Virginia Tech Hokies guard Kayana Traylor (23) in the second half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Irish closed at 62nd in the nation by grabbing 53.1% of all available rebounds in their games. They were a less impactful 107th in offensive rebounding rate at 33.2%.

The collective commitment to the glass was enviable, though that one player who was going to grab virtually every critical rebound was lacking.

Of course, that’s true for most teams.

Coaching — A

Mid-season — A-minus

Feb 3, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Niele Ivey watches in the first half against the Virginia Tech Hokies at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Ivey and staff built a nationally ranked, typically engaged, always responsive unit that proved slump-proof against a mostly mighty schedule.

It may not be the most glamorous measure (and frankly, it wasn’t an easy nugget to glean), but among the 308 teams in the country that lost nine or more games, the Irish were one of just three that never lost back-to-back.

The others were American (23-9) and New Mexico (26-10). While ND’s opponents compiled the 25th-best win percentage in the country, New Mexico’s were 260th and American’s 275th.

As touched upon earlier, Ivey’s game results as a head coach are speaking for themselves now and her ability as a recruiter has never been in question.

Olivia Miles — A

Mid-season — A-minus

Feb 3, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Olivia Miles (5) dribbles in the second half against the Virginia Tech Hokies at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a temptation to go A-plus here, but that suggests a flirtation with perfection, something Miles has said she’s far from achieving.

Nevertheless, this was a mere freshman that Ivey called “the best point guard in the country” last week (admittedly, Caitlin Clark might like a word), and one who inspired all-time-great point guard Sue Bird to tweet “SHEESH” in response to a Miles highlight last week.

Maya Dodson — A

Mid-season — B-plus

Feb 1, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Maya Dodson (0) goes up for a shot as North Carolina State Wolfpack center Elissa Cunane (33) defends in the first half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

On the way to joining Miles as an All-ACC first-teamer, and adding all-defensive honors, Dodson was ND’s inside force at one end and inside enforcer at the other.

After averaging 9.7 points over her first 12 Irish games as she adjusted to a new school, and to sitting out an entire year, Dodson averaged 14.3 the rest of the way and proved an elite player in her first non-injury-interrupted season since she was a freshman.

Sonia Citron — A

Mid-season — A

Jan 30, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Sonia Citron (11) drives to the basket as Boston College Eagles guard JoJo Lacey (4) defends in the second half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC’s freshman of the year (Miles was ineligible as an early enrollee), Citron quietly went about her business, with loud results mixed in.

Exceedingly unselfish, according to Ivey, Citron’s also cerebral, versatile and chock full of skills on a basketball court.

Some might want to see more emotion going forward, but again … freshman.

Maddy Westbeld — A-minus

Mid-season — A-minus

Mar 5, 2022; Greensboro, NC, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Maddy Westbeld (34) grabs a rebound in front  of Miami Hurricanes forward Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi (33) during the second quarter at Greensboro Coliseum Complex. Mandatory Credit: William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

Westbeld set herself up for high expectations this season with ACC freshman of the year accolades last season.

She did suffer through a sophomore slump that lasted throughout January, but she also righted herself by February, delivered in the clutch and was ND’s No. 2 scorer and rebounder in the NCAA Tourney.

Dara Mabrey — A-minus

Mid-season — B-plus

Jan 16, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Dara Mabrey (1) dribbles as North Carolina Tar Heels guard Carlie Littlefield (2) defends in the first half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

A few extra words here.

Before Saturday’s game, Mabrey recalled of last season’s 10-10 finish and NCAA Tourney exclusion that she was “heartbroken … head down in the pillow just crying.”

She may have felt the same after Saturday’s game, that steal she gave up to Raina Perez for the go-ahead Wolfpack basket with 14 seconds left dictating as much.

Yet, it’s outrageous to pin a 40-minute result on one play.

If she did park her head in a pillow, it’s because Mabrey cares as much as anyone in the program. She brings the edgiest attitude on the Irish, something this team needed.

Oh yeah, she was also ND’s premier 3-point threat all season, was exceptional over the first two rounds of the tourney, and that aforementioned turnover was one of just three she committed across three postseason games while being ND’s second-most frequent handler of the ball.

The Bench — B-plus

Sam Brunelle, Anaya Peoples and Abby Prohaska, all former starters, each gave the Irish a boost.

Feb 3, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Sam Brunelle (33) reacts after a three point basket in the first half against the Virginia Tech Hokies at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Prohaska was out for more than a month twice due to injuries, but delivered inspiration both through her fights to return and her scrappy play when available.

Notre Dame guard Abby Prohaska (12) shoots a layup as Massachusetts' Ber'nyah Mayo during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Norman, Okla. (AP Photo/ Mitch Alcala)

Peoples, besides blending in seamlessly within a variety of combinations all season, uncoiled perhaps her best minutes in the NC State rematch while Dodson sat out 14 straight in foul trouble.

Notre Dame's Anaya Peoples (21) drives in as Louisville's Hailey Van Lith (10) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

Brunelle labored at times, but she also battled through injuries and took on multiple roles while always being ND’s most genuinely potent backup.