Notre Dame women's basketball has lots of potential — and they KNOW it
SOUTH BEND — It’s not uncommon for Niele Ivey to laud her players. An exception might be when they begin to laud themselves.
There was admittedly some of that going on during Monday afternoon’s Notre Dame women’s basketball media day at Purcell Pavilion.
It’s understandable, though. They were being asked over and over in one form or another how good they might be as a group, and there’s not a whole lot of reason to be unconfident.
The Irish, after all, were 24-9 last season, in the Sweet 16, a whisker from knocking off No. 1 seed North Carolina State for an Elite Eight spot, return four starters from that group, have added transfers who bring their own tourney runs and have topped it off with a freshman being likened to some of the program’s best-ever players.
“Insanely good,” Sonia Citron said of how good ND will be. “You’ll see that this season for sure.”
“I think every box is checked,” fellow sophomore guard Olivia Miles said when asked whether the roster covers all the needs. “I’m just super excited to actually get started, and I can’t wait to just win and have fun with these girls.”
“It’s a fun group,” Ivey concurred, her eyebrows nevertheless rising just a pinch when parts of those two particular quotes were shared with her.
A but could be sensed at that moment.
“They have an incredible chemistry off the court, and I think that’s gonna translate on the court,” the third-year Irish coach continued, “but, I mean I’m still always pulling for more. I’m always trying to push them beyond what they think they can do, so if they think we’re there, we’re not even close to being there, because I know how hard it takes.”
It’s going to take plenty more than where any team stands in October, but Notre Dame doesseem committed to the work ahead, according to even their coach in most of her answers.
It starts in large part with Miles, the All-Atlantic Coast Conference whiz of a point guard who finished second in the nation in assists as a freshman last season, and with Citron, the wildly versatile swing player who won ACC Rookie of the Year because Miles was ineligible in the league’s eyes for having played a scant six games the season before as an early enrollee.
“I feel stronger, more prepared, less anxious for games, more fit into the system than I was lastyear,” Miles said.
She says all four returning starters — Maddy Westbeld and Dara Mabrey joining her and Citronin that quartet — are unmistakably improved.
Each averaged in double digits last season, with Miles at 13.7 points, 7.4 assists and 1.8 steals; Citron at 11.8 points and 6.6 rebounds; Westbeld at 11.8 points and 6.3 boards; and Mabrey at 10.3 points and 73-of-198 on 3s for 36.9%.
“I’ve just seen each of us grow leaps and bounds,” Miles said. “I feel like the talent wasn’t theissue. It was more the gel and the chemistry, and that’s come together completely.”
While All-ACC forward Maya Dodson (12.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, eighth in the nation at 2.8 blocks) was denied another season of eligibility and four backups have transferred, the Irish have brought in grad-student center Lauren Ebo, who averaged 8.0 points and a team-best 6.7 rebounds for a 29-7 Elite Eight Texas club last winter; forward Kylee Watson, who played two years at Oregon as one of the nation’s top recruits and has three seasons of eligibility remaining; and Jenna Brown, a guard who’s missed the last two years due to injury, but comes from a culture that includes a national title at Stanford.
Junior forward Nat Marshall returns, pronounced healthy after a medial meniscus tear sidelinedher for the final two months of last season, and two-time Ohio Ms. Basketball KK Bransford hasarrived as the lone scholarship freshman.
“She’s amazing, another version of Jackie Young,” Miles said of Bransford, likening her to theformer ND standout guard who recently won a WNBA title with Las Vegas.
As for Miles’ assessment of herself, she doesn’t hesitate to share areas she can be better.
“Definitely being more efficient on offense, cutting down my turnovers obviously,” Miles said.“Developing a mid-range game has been a very important emphasis in the offseason, (and) justbeing aggressive to the rim.”
Likewise, Ivey finds no shortage of categories in which the Irish can improve as a group.
The coach says she did “a deep dive” in the offseason. Half-court defense, transition defense 3-point offense, inside efficiency and transition offense are all being addressed.
“I’m really focusing on our passing,” Ivey said, “because I think Liv’s the best passer in thecountry, but sometimes within our offense, it’s a very free-flowing offense, so there are a lot of other players who are making decisions … (and) defense is a mindset, and that’s something I’m trying to grow with this group, knowing that it’s going to take stops to win.”
The Irish won frequently last season, but often came up pain-stakingly short, too, finishing 5-6 ingames decided by five points or fewer, in contrast to 18-3 in games decided by double digits.
“There’s been so many games that were lost by so little,” Citron said. “Our team, sometimes we get a little crazy and lose the ball and things like that. Obviously, it’s just focusing and attention to detail.”
Losing the ball was critical in that season-closing loss to NC State. ND led 59-51 with under sixminutes remaining, but committed seven of its 16 turnovers in the fourth quarter, including RainaPerez stealing the ball from Mabrey and scoring at 14.8 seconds to go for a 64-63 Wolfpack lead in a 66-63 win.
“That last game still replays in my mind,” Miles said. “I still watch it back, so it stings, but I’m definitely using it as fuel to push us forward.”
The Irish entered that NCAA Tournament last season with only Dodson, who did so at Stanford, and the likewise since-departed Abby Prohaska ever owning a whiff of previous Big Danceexperience.
If they return next March, they’ll do so with Miles, Citron, Westbeld, Mabrey and Ebo all having substantial such experience, plus Watson and Brown having tasted it, too.
Similar to Miles, Citron says the loss to the Pack is “in the back of our minds. It’s gonna fuel us.”
Their coach doesn’t mind that approach.
“You can utilize a loss for the next season,” Ivey said. “I think it’s something that’s always going to be in the back of their heads. It gives them an opportunity to have a chip on their shoulder. They know how good they can be. They know their potential.”
Notre Dame hosts Truman State in an exhibition on Monday, Oct. 31, then opens its regularseason when Northern Illinois visits on Monday, Nov. 7.