Westbeld's status uncertain as Irish face Virginia in ACC Women's Tourney

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s women basketball team already has earned one coveted prize — the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season championship — and has it safely in its pocket after completing a 15-1 march through the league.

On Friday, the Irish begin the postseason stage of the season, opening play in the ACC postseason tourney and looking to capture their fourth straight crown in that event. Also at stake is a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Notre Dame currently holds a No. 1 seed and surely would remain there with another ACC postseason crown.

The third-ranked and top-seeded Irish, 27-3, will play Friday at 2 p.m. in the quarterfinals of the ACC tourney at Coastal Carolina University against eighth-seeded Virginia, a 61-44 victor over No. 9 seed Wake Forest in Thursday's action.

Virginia, 19-11, has won five of its last seven games, including a stunning upset of then fourth-ranked Florida State earlier in February. Notre Dame defeated Virginia at Purcell Pavilion, 82-74, on Jan. 29.

“The Virginia game with us was very close,” said McGraw. “It came right down to the wire.”

Notre Dame’s largest lead in that contest was 11 points.

Should the No. 1 seeded Irish triumph, it will then step into more dangerous territory, Saturday meeting either Louisville or North Carolina State, the lone team to dump Notre Dame in the ACC regular season. Louisville and North Carolina State play immediately prior to the Irish Friday game.

The tourney has been likened to running a gauntlet. It takes at least three victories on three successive days to win the crown. Seeds lower than four would need four or five victories to earn the crown. No team lower than a No. 5 seed has ever won the ACC tourney. That was North Carolina in 1984 and Maryland in 1986. Maryland now plays in the Big Ten.

The Irish have won their last 11 contests and have regained the edge needed in the postseason. They played their best game of the season in the regular season finale – an easy victory over No. 8 Florida State.

“They got there – got the edge themselves,” said McGraw of her team’s late-season surge. “They came in to practice with such focus. I thought we did exactly what we wanted and exactly what we did at practice. It was great to see.”

Notre Dame will need that same edge, the same focus to traverse the potential roadblocks in the ACC tourney. The semifinals and final likely will include only current Top 25 teams.

“If we want to be determining our own fate (in the NCAA tournament) we have to win.'' McGraw said. "We can’t sit back and hope someone else loses.”

When the Irish take the floor its team will be led by junior Brianna Turner and senior Lindsay Allen, both named this week to the All-ACC team. Turner, additionally, was named the league’s defensive player of the year. It is the second straight season Turner claimed that honor,

“I just try to help my team out,” said Turner. “I try to stop moves to the basket. I pride myself on defense — being in front of my man or rotating over.”

Turner leads the ACC in blocked shots (77 overall, 2.57 per game in ACC). She has 254 career blocks for the Irish, second only to Ruth Riley (370) with another year to play.

“I had to work on my timing for the blocks,” said Turner. I would jump too soon. Now I wait until they release the shot.”

Turner leads the Irish in scoring at 15.5 points a game and in rebounding at 7.4.

The team remains a bit short-handed. Junior Mychal Johnson has the boot off her injured ankle, but will not play this weekend. The fate of impressive junior Kathryn Westbeld remains day-to-day.

Westbeld has not practiced in weeks, protecting an ankle bone bruise, but has played her best basketball of the season through the weeks of the injury.

“Kat’s status is going to be tricky,” said McGraw. “She may be emergency use at times. It depends on how she feels that day. Certainly we want to rest her and everyone we can throughout the tourney.”

“This is definitely the toughest three-game schedule we’ve ever had – if we win the first game,” said McGraw.

No gauntlet is ever easy.

• No. 3 Notre Dame (27-3) vs. Virginia (19-11).

WHERE: HTC Center, Coastal Carolina University, Conway S.C. (3,600)

WHEN: Friday at 2 p.m.

INTERNET: Game can be seen online at WatchESPN.com (formerly ESPN 3) or through the WatchESPN app.tv

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) in South Bend

TELEVISION: Fox Sports Detroit

GAME NOTES: Notre Dame leads the series with Virginia, 4-2 ... Lindsay Allen’s first assist Friday will make her the all-time leader at Notre Dame in that category. She has 778, the same as Mary Gavin (1988). Allen is only eight assists away from setting the all-time ACC record, 785 from Sharnee Zoll of Virginia in 2004-2008 ... Notre Dame goes into Friday’s battle with Virginia having won 12 straight postseason conference games, nine in the ACC and three in its final year in the Big East ... Notre Dame is 71-2 in all ACC games, including the postseason ... Virginia is coached by Joanne Boyle, whose record is 312-175 ... The Cavaliers have four players averaging between 9.4 and 10 points a game, led by 6-foot-2 junior Lauren Moses. Two freshmen, Dominique Toussaint and Jocelyn Willoughby, are at 9.9 and 9.4 respectively, and 5-8 senior Breyana Mason is at 9.8. Willoughby led Virginia with 16 points in the January game at Notre Dame, an 82-74 Irish victory on Jan. 29.

Notre Dame's Kathryn Westbeld (33) was sensational in his latest game, Sunday against Florida State, but her status for Friday's ACC Tournament quarterfinal game against Virginia is in question. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)