The 'Kat' and 'KoKo' show a hit for Notre Dame women's hoops team

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Kathryn “Kat” Westbeld and Kristina “Koko” Nelson each come across as a little too nice to ever form a textbook good-cop/bad-cop duo, but there are at least overtures of that approach being carried out by Notre Dame’s only two healthy senior women’s basketball players.

And it seems to be working for all concerned as the No. 5-ranked Irish get set to flip the page to the final month of their regular season.

Surging Notre Dame (20-2, 8-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) brings a five-game winning streak into Thursday’s home contest against North Carolina (14-7, 4-4). Four of those victories have been blowouts — including the most recent, a 100-69 road flogging of No. 8 Florida State — and the exception was the record rally from 23 points down to ultimately handle No. 6 Tennessee, 74-60.

In ND’s latest win, Westbeld scored a career-high 21 points and grabbed a season-high 12 rebounds, while over the latest three wins, Nelson has compiled the most sterling stretch of her career.

These recent efforts are coming in addition to that good-cop/bad-cop evolution of sorts.

“I think Koko and I have kind of different roles as leaders,” Westbeld said Wednesday afternoon at practice. “We like to call her the motherly figure. Just emotionally-wise, she’s that person that pats you on the back, (whereas) Coach (Muffet McGraw) has kind of put me in a role where I need to be the opposite of that, like really let people know what they’re doing and what they need to do, so I think we have a good balance.”

“I think it just comes natural,” Nelson said of her nurturing. “My high school coach always told me that same thing, so I guess it’s just a natural thing.”

A natural thing, but not always a perfect thing, especially in games.

“I’d like to see Dr. Jekyll a little bit more, or Mr. Hyde — I don’t know which one’s the bad guy,” McGraw said with a laugh while also nodding affirmatively to the nice streaks that seem to pervade within both Nelson and Westbeld. “I would like them to have that chip on their shoulder, and I think Kat can bring that edge a little bit easier than Koko can.”

No argument from either player on that.

“Yeah, Coach has really preached that to me,” Nelson said with a grin, “that I need to have a switch, and when I’m on the floor, I need to be tough, mean, just be a mean dog basically.”

“My dad always said I play mean, but I’ve always been a pretty nice person, so it’s funny (to hear that),” Westbeld said of it coming down to having a switch, “but it’s not really something I think about. It’s just my style of play I guess.”

Aside from her style, there’s been Westbeld’s increased production as she moves further away from the April ankle surgery that slowed her at the start of the season.

Over her last 11 games, the 6-foot-2 forward and third-year starter is averaging 10.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 29.5 minutes to hike her season totals to 8.0, 5.7 and 25.4. She’s also hitting 61.1 percent from the field to stand behind only Nelson’s 61.8 among the team’s rotation regulars.

“Kathryn is somebody we always look to because she’s so smart,” McGraw said. “She’s the calming presence that keeps us together. Whenever a team presses, she’s got to be on the floor, because she really knows how to get the ball to the right people.”

Ball distribution is also a strength of Nelson’s, though McGraw adds that at times she wishes the 6-4 post would be “a little more selfish” with her shot.

A career backup, Nelson was 5-of-5 from the field against Florida State, matching her most made field goals. Her 11 points was her second-best for the Irish, and just one game earlier, against Pittsburgh, she notched career highs in minutes (28) and steals (three), and matched a season high in rebounds (seven).

Over her last three games, Nelson is averaging 9.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 22.3 minutes, bumping her season figures to 5.2, 2.8 and 14.0.

“I don’t know if there’s anybody that plays a role off the bench better than Koko does,” McGraw said. “Starting with the Tennessee game, she brought the momentum that really changed the game. She comes in and she’s just able to do the little things.

"She’s a great communicator on defense, she understands the game plan, she always follows the game plan. She’s great defensively, moves her feet, tries to get charges. I think she really brings energy to the team and they love playing with her.”

Tar Heel talk

North Carolina’s played just two ranked teams — to Notre Dame’s eight such opponents so far — but the Tar Heels recently took down one of those clubs, beating No. 15 Duke 92-86 in overtime.

“They’ve got great guards,” McGraw said. “Paris Kea is really hard to stop. She’s somebody coming off a career night against Duke (36 points). … She’s a great shooter, reminds me of (ex-Irish star) Jewell Loyd, so she’s got that kind of talent, can do a lot of different things, but you can’t forget about the rest of the team.”

Kea, a 5-9 junior, is averaging 19.6 points, 5.8 assists and 2.4 steals. She’s 35-of-92 on 3-pointers for 38 percent

Fellow guard Jamie Cherry, a 5-8 senior, is at 16.3 points, 4.0 assists, 2.1 steals and is 50-of-143 on triples for 35 percent.

They’re averaging 37.3 and 38.0 minutes, respectively.

Janelle Bailey, a 6-4 freshman, is at 15.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, shooting 52 percent from the field and has been named ACC Rookie of the Week five times.

The Heels like to keep her on the floor as well. She’s at 31.0 minutes, and that’s despite fouling out of six games and finishing with four fouls in nine others.

Taylor Koenen, a 6-2 sophomore, is at 9.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 36.7 minutes.

ACC glance

The Irish enter the game tied atop the ACC with Louisville and Virginia at 8-1.

That’ll be a two-way tie at most after Thursday, as the Cardinals and host Cavaliers play each other. In fact, it’s the first of two meetings between those teams, as Louisville hosts Virginia in three weeks.

Notre Dame’s single meeting with host Virginia comes in two weeks.

Florida State is next in the league standings at 6-2.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: North Carolina (14-7, 4-4 ACC) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (20-2, 8-1 ACC).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACC Network Extra.

NOTING: With its 100-69 win at Florida State, Notre Dame’s coming off its most points ever against a top-10 opponent. The Irish are seeking their 20th straight home win. They stand 36-0 all-time in ACC home games. … ND’s only loss to North Carolina came in 2007 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Overall, the Irish lead the Heels 6-1, including 4-0 since joining the ACC. … ND statistical leaders include Arike Ogunbowale (19.9 points per game, 31-of-91 on 3-pointers), Jessica Shepard (15.9 points, 8.0 rebounds), Jackie Young (14.0 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Marina Mabrey (12.8 points, 4.1 assists, 2.0 steals).

QUOTING: “I think Marina is constantly evolving. I think she has a game where she looks fantastic at the point, then has a game where she’s really able to score. I think it’s going to be up to her to figure out which spot is gonna work for her, and for the team. That’s why I’m trying to play Jackie (Young) at the point a little bit more, give (Mabrey) a chance to get off the ball. It’s a lot of pressure on her. I think she’s got some pressure releases now. We’re using Kathryn (Westbeld) up top a little more, we’re setting some screens for her, so I think we’re doing some things to help her get into the offense, but now it’s a question of can she also find her offense, because she is somebody who needs to score.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on Marina Mabrey’s play at point guard since Lili Thompson’s season-ending injury Dec. 31.

Clemson's Kobi Thornton, center, grabs a rebound between Notre Dame's Kristina Nelson (21) and Kathryn Westbeld (33) during an ACC matchup at Purcell Pavilion on Jan. 21. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)