N.C. State up next for Notre Dame women on Senior Day

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Four Notre Dame women’s basketball players who have combined for a wildly varied assortment of paths in arriving at this point will each be honored during Senior Day ceremonies when the Irish close their regular season Sunday by trying to win at least a share of an Atlantic Coast Conference title.

No. 5-ranked ND (26-2, 14-1) hosts No. 21 and similarly hot North Carolina State (22-6, 11-4) in a nationally televised contest that shapes up as critical for both sides. Tip-off at Purcell Pavilion is 2 p.m.

No. 4 Louisville (28-2, 14-1) will be home at that same time against struggling Pittsburgh (10-18, 2-13) as the Cardinals seek their piece of the regular-season crown.

Kristina “Koko” Nelson, Kathryn Westbeld, Lili Thompson and Mychal Johnson will all be saluted before Notre Dame’s game.

Playing in her 126th contest for the Irish, Nelson will get her first career start, according to Muffet McGraw, as the coach continues a tradition of starting her seniors on Senior Day.

“I’d actually prefer if they didn’t start me,” Nelson confessed with a sheepish smile Saturday at practice. “I’d kind of like to just stay in the same role we’ve been in the rest of the year.”

After all, that way has worked — so much so that the Irish just this week edged ahead of Connecticut for the nation’s No. 1 RPI ranking.

On the other hand, if any group knows how to deal with a change in circumstances, it’s Sunday’s quartet of honorees.

There’s Nelson, the fifth-year player who has grown from a barely used backup during extended stretches over each of her first three seasons to first player off the bench for a team hunting an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed.

There’s Westbeld, the third-year starter who early this season wasn’t sure if her unexpectedly slow recovery from April ankle surgery would allow her to play regularly, or if she might have to at least ponder taking a redshirt.

There’s Thompson, who will become the first transfer of the 31-year McGraw era to go through Senior Day ceremonies, and who played only 14 games in an ND uniform before being sidelined for good by a Dec. 31 knee injury.

Finally, there’s Johnson, who not only suffered her season-ending knee injury just before the season started, but who’s not even sure this will be her only Senior Day.

“It’s been really devastating to possibly lose my last year like this,” Johnson acknowledged Saturday.

The point guard, who was looking forward to possibly the most action of her career in 2017-18, said she still hasn’t decided whether she will pursue the remaining year of eligibility she has coming under NCAA guidelines.

There are academic, physical and other factors to consider, and Johnson — a management consulting major who also has an interest in nursing — said she’s still not leaning strongly one way over the other.

“I would love for her to come back,” McGraw said, “but sometimes the rehabs as you get older, it’s kind of hard. It’s been a struggle, but we would love to have her in some capacity.”

If Johnson does return as a player after going through Senior Day ceremonies, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Madison Cable did it as recently as 2015.

Westbeld knows she won’t be back as a player, and relative to the other three honorees, she’s completed her Irish career in a relatively unscathed manner.

“It’s been a long, but really fast, four years,” Westbeld said. “It’s sad to see it closing to an end here, but I’m also definitely excited to see what’s after college.”

Westbeld, with a major in management consulting and minor in studio art, has targeted art, pro basketball and modeling as possible pursuits.

Thompson, who already owns a degree from Stanford in science, technology and society, has mentioned interests in both law and politics.

Nelson, with a degree in graphic design/visual communication from ND, said Saturday she’s thinking about either a career in design or going to nursing school. 

About the Wolfpack

While Notre Dame brings an 11-game winning streak into Sunday’s game, North Carolina State has won 10 of its last 11.

The Wolfpack’s only loss in that span was a 52-48 decision at Miami, and each of their last eight wins have come by at least nine points, including a 65-56 victory over No. 9 Florida State.

“They just really defend, they rebound and they’re aggressive,” McGraw said. “They’re having a great year, they’re overachieving and (coach Wes Moore) has done a great job.”

State is second in the nation in rebounding margin at plus-11.0 and stands second among ACC teams in scoring defense at 56.4, just 0.2 behind Louisville.

This is also the same program that stunned the visiting Irish in an ACC opener last season, 70-62, when Notre Dame went in ranked No. 2 and the Pack entered unranked. State led for all but 1:06 and never trailed.

“We got off to a really bad start, but it was a nice wake-up call and we were able to get through the rest of the league,” McGraw said of going 15-1 for a fourth straight outright ACC regular-season title. “But now this one’s the last game. We really need to be focused and ready to take their best shot. They’re playing for a lot as well.”

With a win, the Pack can assure a third-place tie and a double bye at next week’s ACC Tourney in Greensboro, N.C. With a loss, they could still slip to fifth and a single bye.

Upon losing four starters after last season, State was picked to finish 10th in the league by the coaches and eighth by the media this winter.

“I guess they’re a surprise team in the conference,” McGraw said, “but they’re not a surprise to us. They beat us last year and they have a lot of talent.”

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)

WHO: No. 21 North Carolina State (22-6, 11-4 ACC) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (26-2, 14-1).

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

WHEN: Sunday, 2 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Wolfpack leaders include senior Chelsea Nelson (13.0 points per game, 9.4 rebounds), junior Kiara Leslie (12.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg), 6-5 senior Akela Maize (10.1 ppg, 1.9 blocks), sophomore Aislinn Konig (10.5 ppg) and sophomore Kaila Ealey (8.9 ppg, 4.4 assists, 1.6 steals). ... Pacing ND are Arike Ogunbowale (20.3 ppg), Jessica Shepard (15.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg), Jackie Young (14.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.6 apg) and Marina Mabrey (13.5 ppg, 4.3 apg, 2.1 spg). Mabrey is coming off barely missing her second career triple-double Thursday against Virginia Tech. She also led the Irish in last season’s upset loss at NC State with 22 points. Ogunbowale had just six in that game, while Young did not score in 10 minutes of action. … Notre Dame is looking to improve to 40-0 in ACC home games over its five years in the league. The Irish are 37-3 on the road in ACC regular-season play. They are seeking to at least tie for this season’s title after winning the first four crowns outright.

QUOTING: “It’s crazy how much we’ve overcome this year. I don’t think anyone really expected us do this well (given season-ending injuries to four players). I think we’re really just enjoying it and taking it game by game and having fun as we go. Especially for me, it’s my last year, so I definitely want to get in as many lasts as I can, just enjoy it while it’s here. Not many people get this in their lifetime, so it’s definitely something special to cherish.” — Kathryn Westbeld, Notre Dame senior, on her final season.