Notre Dame women welcome chilly ACC Tournament

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- As the Notre Dame women’s basketball team prepares for the upcoming Atlantic Coast Conference postseason tournament, the Irish aren't bothering to look at the targets on their backs.

They know they're there.

“The welcoming committee gets smaller and smaller every year we go down there,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “We will have a lot of people cheering against us. They will like to see someone else win.”

No wonder. The Irish have swept through their first two trips to the ACC tourney and have lost only one time in three complete regular seasons in the league.

After earning one of four double-byes, Notre Dame opens tourney play Friday at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, against the winner of Thursday’s matchup between Duke and Virginia.

The Irish coaching staff and the team’s veterans are busy getting everyone prepared for what is coming. In fact, senior mother hen Michaela Mabrey, a participant in three straight Final Fours, is the most vocal of those.

“We are confident right now," Mabrey said. "We will have a tough road, but I think we are prepared and ready for it.

“We have been used to having that target on our backs. We focus on having each other’s backs. It is always us – that is what we focus on.”

Mabrey is instrumental in getting the younger players on the team, especially freshmen Arike Ogunbowale and Michaela’s sister Marina, to simply focus.

“The upper classmen have to set the mentality," Michaela said. "Everyone has to realize it is possible for us to lose. They might not think that can happen, but it can and setting the tone is important."

The Irish practiced Monday, after a day off Tuesday and travel Wednesday, they will practice in North Carolina Thursday. That's the day all eyes will be on sophomore Kathryn Westbeld, who injured an ankle against Florida State and missed the last two games of the regular season.

“I will be ready,” Westbeld said Monday.

But McGraw only listed her as probable.

“Kat did not practice, but she did shoot," McGraw said. "She will practice Thursday, we are thinking, and then we will see.”

The Irish need Westbeld. The prospect of playing three games on three straight days will be brighter with her available. Westbeld had started the first 27 games of the season.

McGraw feels her team’s conditioning is fine.

“We are a little thin at the post. It seemed worse without Kat,” she said. “I like the four-guard look (when the Irish play with only one post player), but we may play teams with a lot of big guys. It’s difficult to go four-guard against them.”

McGraw has made wide use of her bench this season, and will need that bench during the tournament.

“We need the freshmen to be ready," McGraw said. "We need everybody to be ready. We will need Coco (Kristina Nelson) and Diamond (Thompson) and Mychal (Johnson). We may need them for four-minute stretches during these games.”

Like Mabrey, McGraw likes the role of being the “target.”

“That's good for us,” she said. It helps us get motivated. I like being the underdog.”

The Irish won’t be the underdog in any game in the ACC tourney, but knowing the hostile crowds will be against them, adds to their desire to keep winning.

The Irish have solid leadership in Mabrey, quiet leadership from point guard Lindsay Allen, and tons of “here’s how you do it,” from grad student Madison Cable.

“When the players see Maddie diving for loose balls, taking charges and just getting beat up, it makes everyone else want to play harder," said McGraw. "Everyone tries to raise their level of intensity to match what Maddie is doing. She is the most competitive person. She and Skylar (Diggins) are like 1A and 1B in competitiveness."

The Irish togetherness has paid off handsomely so far. The Irish are 28-1 and ranked second in the nation, and have played the toughest schedule in the country.

“I don't think this is our best team in the last five years,” McGraw said. “For us to be where we are now is overachieving. I don’t think honestly outside people appreciate what we have done.

“When I looked at the schedule initially, I did not expect to be 28-1. They have exceeded my expectations – and that is hard to do. We have found different ways to win games.”

She and her team will be looking for any successful way to win, when it opens its tournament run on Friday.

Notre Dame's Madison Cable tries to dribble through the defense of Boston College's Alexa Coulombe (13) and Kelly Hughes (23) during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college basketball game in Boston, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Notre Dame won 63-50. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)