Lesar: These Irish can hold a lead

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Finally found a Notre Dame team that could hold onto a double-digit lead in the second half.

Wasn’t easy, though.

This was a game the Irish women’s basketball team had been waiting eight months to play.

Had all been right with the world last March, Notre Dame and Washington would have met in the championship game of the Lexington Regional.

Trouble was, Stanford spoiled the matchup by being on fire while upsetting the favored Irish. The Huskies made the most of the opportunity, beat the Cardinal, and earned a ticket to the Final Four.

Notre Dame’s battle with Washington never happened. Until Sunday.

The Women’s Preseason NIT title hardly equates to a Final Four bid, but hey, the 71-60 Notre Dame victory provided a measure – as small as it might be – of satisfaction for coach Muffet McGraw.

It’s not like the Irish were thrilled at having another chunk of hardware that doesn’t say “national championship” to clutter a trophy case somewhere. It was more an opportunity to work out the dilemma: Who takes care of the garbage?

Notre Dame has its scorers – plenty of them. Arike Ogunbowale had 17 against the Huskies. Brianna Turner had a double-double – 10 points, 12 rebounds. Freshman Jackie Young had eight points in 21 minutes.

But who’s going to take charging fouls? Who’s going to give it all for those 50-50 balls? In other words, who’s going to be last year’s seniors Madison Cable and Hannah Huffman; the players McGraw calls “glue” players?

Best bet might be Kathryn Westbeld, a 6-foot-2 junior who had three steals and three assists to go with 14 points and eight rebounds. A pretty good line. That’s progress.

Washington coach Mike Neighbors was impressed. He said he’s had his eye on Westbeld (from Kettering, Ohio) since she was in the sixth grade, when he was an assistant at Xavier.

Ogunbowale, the WNIT MVP, scored seven points in Notre Dame’s 10-0 run to start. Thirteen minutes into the game, the Irish led 31-11.

Neighbors had his theory for his team’s early malaise. He pointed to problems simulating the Irish transition game in practice, and the Huskies being caught flat-footed.

On the other hand, there’s a very unscientific theory that neither coach would support – but it seemed to have some validity.

Notre Dame has a spiffy pre-game presentation. A couple minutes before tip-off, after the visitors are introduced, Purcell Pavilion’s lights go down, more than 8,000 fans break out their lime green Glow Sticks, and a big-time motivational production is shown on the video board – one of the best in the realm of women’s basketball, according to a very biased McGraw.

Pretty cool stuff.

When UConn’s here, Geno takes his team away from the presentation and into the hallway until it’s time to get down to business. Not only did Neighbors keep his players at the bench, but he and all his players watched the entire show.

Long before the opening tip, the Irish were in the Huskies’ head.

Just a thought. But it makes sense.

Eight months ago, while watching first-hand at Rupp Arena, Neighbors knew Notre Dame was a quality team. He said he had a pretty good idea they were about to go from good to special this season.

“(Senior point guard Lindsay Allen) is so in control of the team from start to finish,” Neighbors said. “Last year, they were good in transition. But, wow, are they fast in transition now.

“I’ve got a vote in the (coaches) poll, and they’ll get my vote (Monday) for No. 1.”

Especially since the Irish knew what to do with a second-half lead.

Which is saying something around Notre Dame these days.

Notre Dame’s Kristina Nelson (21), Lindsay Allen (15), center, and Kathryn Westbeld (33) accept the preseason WNIT trophy for Notre Dame following Notre Dame's 71-60 win against Washington in an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin)