Lesar: Regret clutters Notre Dame women's basketball locker room

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

LEXINGTON, Ky. — It wasn’t anger or disappointment that seemed to cause the walls of the Irish locker room to close in.

It was more like regret.

From a 14-point halftime lead, to a good look by Arike Ogunbowale for the win as the clock ticked down, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team had its opportunities Sunday.

The lead vanished as quickly as it came and Ogunbowale’s attempt (which came after a dribble from an open look from 10-12 feet) was stuffed by 6-foot-3 Erica McCall and the Irish season ended in a stunner.

Stanford’s 76-75 Lexington Regional championship victory came with plenty of “What ifs …?” for the Irish.

How ironic was it that the play that produced the game-winning basket with 23 seconds to play was a lob to 6-3 Alanna Smith? It was a play that likely wouldn’t have even been considered if Notre Dame had not lost 6-3 star Brianna Turner to a knee injury a week ago.

“(The lob for the game-winning basket) was unfortunate,” said Notre Dame’s one remaining true post, 6-2 Kathryn Westbeld. “I felt I could have gotten it, but I didn’t. That’s on me.”

Then there’s Notre Dame’s 14-point halftime that disappeared with Stanford’s 24-12 edge in the third quarter. The Irish looked much more sluggish coming out of halftime than they did going into it. Stanford came out with a burst of energy.

And, hey, what happened to the Irish defense? The same Stanford team that hit 2 of 15 shots in the second quarter, while the Irish went on an 18-0 run, drilled 10 of 16 in the third quarter.

“It all went downhill for us (in the third quarter),” said Irish sophomore Marina Mabrey. “We started changing up our defenses and we’re not on the same page. Some people thought we were in one defense, some people thought we were in another.

“(Stanford) had open 3s. That was a problem.

“We came back down (on offense). We were trying to score to make up for it, and we got out of (the rhythm). We got out of our (comfort zone). We had to work for every single shot.

“They were switching right, coming out (on the perimeter), being aggressive, contesting every shot.”

“I don’t know,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Mabrey’s assessment. “She would probably know, being on the floor. We’re basically playing a 2-3 zone (defense) the whole game. I don’t see where they could be off.

“They just lost people; couldn’t find them.”

Notre Dame’s second half was the polar opposite of what the Irish had experienced through their first six quarters in Lexington. Points didn’t come easily, like they had in four quarters against Ohio State or the first two against the Cardinal.

Every possession was a chore.

“I think the whole thing was my fault,” McGraw said. “We should have done things a little differently.

“It’s hard to decide who to go to because nobody was on. ‘Run something for Marina; run something for Arike.’

“We just couldn’t get anything going. The other people around those two Friday night stepped up and made some big shots. This time, it was kind of all on them. That’s when they felt the pressure.”

McGraw downplayed a suggestion that Notre Dame’s high-octane brand of basketball, set on overdrive after the loss of Turner, was a factor in the outcome.

“We had a collapse on defense,” said McGraw. “We couldn’t find the shooters. Then, we got tight. When they made more shots, we felt more pressure.

“Mentally … probably fatigued. It was a long week without Bri. If we’re making shots, I don’t think we’re tired.”

“It’s hard when a team has a run, and is feeding off that energy,” said Irish point guard Lindsay Allen. “Then, we’re trying to get that energy back.

“(Stanford) wanted to run in the third quarter. We couldn’t get our energy back. We got tight on offense, then it just spiraled from there.”

Whether it was fatigue, a tightening of the collar, or just bad luck, Notre Dame went from shooting 18 of 32 (56 percent) in the first half, to 11 of 33 (33 percent) in the second.

That’s how a game comes down to a last shot at the buzzer.

“It was a game where we had multiple opportunities to win it – and we didn’t,” Allen said. “That (last) shot by Arike does not define the game. We had multiple chances to win it and multiple defensive breakdowns.

“We gave our best effort, we got a good shot, it didn’t go down.”

“I was talking to God the whole time,” McCall said of the scenario of the final play. “‘Please don’t let her make this shot!’ She came out, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s about to get the shot up.’ She took a dribble, and I’m like, ‘I’m going for it, whether I get a foul or not.’ I got a nice, clean block on it.”

Ogunbowale would probably like that dribble back right now.

“(McCall) made a good defensive play,” said Ogunbowale. “It might have been a foul, it might not. At that point, you can’t call that much. She made a good defensive play.”

Just another regret that cluttered the room.

Stanford's Alanna Smith, center, battles Notre Dame's Jackie Young (5) for the ball during the first half of a regional final of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Sunday, March. 26, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)