Notre Dame women head into NCAA Tournament with extra motivation

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame isn't ready to release a bad memory.

Might be worth the extra irritation — for now.

After reaching five consecutive Final Fours, the Irish women's basketball team was ousted early a year ago, suffering an upset loss to Stanford in an NCAA regional semifinal game in Lexington, Ky.

Friday night the No. 2-ranked Irish will begin a new journey they hope will take them back to a Final Four for the eighth time in school history. They had to wait long into the tourney field selection show, but there was little drama.

As expected, a No. 1 seed, the 30-3 Irish will meet 16-seed Robert Morris (22-10) at Purcell Pavilion at 7:30 p.m. Friday. That matchup will follow an earlier first-round game between No. 8 seed Green Bay (27-5) and No. 9 seed Purdue (22-12). The winners of those games will meet Sunday at Notre Dame at a time still to be determined.

Purdue, of course, is coached by former Mishawaka High School star and Indiana Miss Basketball Sharon Versyp. The Boilers' coach was diagnosed with an early sign of breast cancer last week, but has vowed to coach her team through the postseason.

Notre Dame defeated the Boilers in St. Louis to win the 2001 national championship. The Phoenix of Green Bay gave the Irish a scare back in November this season, before falling, 71-67.

Notre Dame was assigned to the Lexington Regional where they will travel should they win their first two tourney games.

“This is ideal for us and our fans,” said head coach Muffet McGraw at the selection show. “We’re playing on St. Patrick’s Day, hopefully a good omen for the Irish. We will turn our attention to Robert Morris in about five minutes.''

It will be the second consecutive trip to the NCAA tourney for the Colonials, who received their bid by winning the Northeast Conference tournament championship.

For Notre Dame it will be the 22nd straight year in the NCAA field. The Irish are 53-22 in all NCAA tourney games. Robert Morris was a first-round tourney opponent in 2014 in Toledo. The Irish won that one, 93-42.

As it does each year, Notre Dame will share the scouting duties, according to assistant coach Beth Cunningham.

“Neile (Ivey) and I will do some work behind the scenes,'' she said. "You have to look at the other teams too. It’s such a quick turnaround. But it’s not a lot different than how we prepare throughout the year.”

Last year hasn't been forgotten.

“I think that loss to Stanford last year really motivated us,” said Irish senior Lindsay Allen. “We have a great opportunity this year, but right now we are just focusing on Robert Morris.''

Allen on Monday was named a finalist (one of five) for the Nancy Lieberman Award, presented annually to the nation’s best point guard. Allen is joined by Lexie Brown of Duke, Alexis Peterson of Syracuse, Kelsey Mitchell of Ohio State and Kelsey Plum of Washington.

“We are playing with a lot of confidence right now,” said McGraw. “It starts at the top with Lindsay, but look at our sophomores Arike (Ogunbowale) and Marina (Mabrey). They are really coming along.''

The two Irish freshmen are ready for the opportunity as well.

“This is what we have played for all year,” said Jackie Young, whose game has taken huge strides in the second half of the season.

“It’s exciting,” said Erin Boley, who has started many of the late season games in place of injured Kathryn Westbeld. “We both (her and Young) are really focused now.”

And Westbeld, like the Irish, has played her best basketball of the season late in the year, despite limited minutes because of an ankle injury.

Getting some bench time actually has paid for Westbeld.

“I think my play has improved because of the perspective I get from watching. I can see mistakes and learn from them. I kind of see what is working and what is not. It gives me a different point of view.”

Whatever the reason, the Irish have been rolling, having won 14 straight games.

The Irish have another impressive streak. They have won the last 10 NCAA tournaments games they hosted at Purcell Pavilion.

“It’s really a balanced bracket we are in,” said McGraw. “It looks really tough. There is a lot of parity. But we have been in many close games. It has helped us.''

Also in the Lexington Regional field are powerhouses Ohio State, Kentucky, Texas and North Carolina State, the only Atlantic Coast Conference team to defeat Notre Dame this season.

Members of the Notre Dame women's basketball team cheer as ESPN announcers name them the number one seed in the Lexington region for the 2017 NCAA tournament, Monday, March 13, 2017, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ