Kathryn Westbeld a key piece of Notre Dame women's basketball puzzle

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – Solving puzzles is intriguing to Muffet McGraw.

The Notre Dame women’s basketball coach has said she annually enjoys putting the pieces of her team together. Trouble is, the shape and availability of those puzzle pieces change sometimes without notice.

Injuries, illness and the like can cause the puzzle to take a different shape.

But McGraw has enough solid pieces with which to craft this year’s puzzle. In fact the recently released coaches poll ranks Notre Dame No. 2 in the nation, a notch behind defending national champion Connecticut.

McGraw, who normally plays about eight deep, said recently she could possibly use a 10-player rotation this year. She said this year’s team may be the most talented she has had at Notre Dame. And that is saying something knowing the 2001 team won the national championship and a heady group of talented players recently ran off a string of five straight appearances in the Final Four.

This year’s puzzle took on a little different look temporarily when junior Mychal Johnson sprained a wrist and still suffers some with shin splints. Yet sophomore Ali Patberg, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, is progressing nicely and will serve as the backup point guard to senior Lindsay Allen.

The Irish also have all-everything Brianna Turner back to patrol the post. Turner and Allen both were named to the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason all-conference team.

But an intriguing and necessary part of this year’s puzzle may be junior Kathryn Westbeld, a starter a year ago, who averaged 7.9 points and 5.6 rebounds a game.

When defenses overload on Turner in the post, try to slow Allen at the point and pay attention to the Irish 3-point shooters on the wings, Westbeld is in an ideal position to do some damage.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to have a mismatch with her,” said McGraw. “If the defense focuses on Bri, Westbeld can find the shooters. She is really mobile and smart, cuts well and is a tough player.”

Westbeld, a management consulting major in the Mendoza School of Business, worked hard in the offseason to prepare for another year with plenty of playing time. Admittedly extremely interested in fashion (with a secret dream to one day have her own clothing line), Westbeld is in a position to really help the Irish play with style.

“When defenses focus on our shooters, it opens up the floor for me,” she said. “Last year I felt shaky at the start, but I have more confidence this season,” she said. “Having the experience of being a junior really helps. I have to play for my teammates.”

Westbeld’s experience has shown her the Irish have additional help coming from freshmen Jackie Young and Erin Boley. “I really like what I see from them. The freshmen have adjusted well to the faster pace of college basketball – adjusted to the college pace.” Both Young and Boley were voted onto the ACC’s newcomer watch list.

“Kat is doing a lot of good things,” said McGraw. “She was active in the offseason and really worked on improving her perimeter skills. We need her to be able to get the ball inside to Bri and Coco (Kristina Nelson) and rebound.”

McGraw’s puzzle sometimes comes with the shape of two bigs playing simultaneously, with Nelson joining Turner in the low post. Yet the Irish rotation sometimes will feature a four-guard look. And Westbeld could find herself in that offensive formation as well.

The puzzle will come into better focus when Patberg is at full strength and Johnson returns. “We need her (Johnson) back,” said McGraw. “We need her defense. She is smart and can do so many things.”

Patberg, who wasn’t expected to be at full strength until the end of the calendar year is making positive strides. “Ali is about to take over,” said McGraw.

But McGraw will continue to tinker with her puzzle – perhaps even through the first month or two of the season, to find just the right fit. The first test is not far away. The Irish open their season with an exhibition game Thursday night at Purcell Pavilion against Roberts Wesleyan.

Ivey promoted

McGraw assistant coach Niele Ivey has been promoted to associate head coach while retaining her recruiting coordinator title.

Ivey, the inaugural winner of last year's WBCA Assistant Coach of the Year award, has been a contributor to every one of Notre Dame's seven Final Four appearances, including being the point guard on the 2001 national  championship team.

"I am so proud of Niele and so thankful for the great work she continues to do,'' said McGraw. "It has been amazing to witness Niele develop into the top assistant in the nation over the past 10 years. Her work with our guards has been instrumental to our success on the court."

Notre Dame's Kathryn Westbeld (33) puts up a shot over North Carolina A&T's defense during the teams first round NCAA match up against North Carolina A&T Saturday, March 19, 2016 in South Bend. The Fighting Irish beat the Aggies 95-61. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ