Notre Dame women's basketball completes impressive run to ACC title

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Jackie Young gave up her mask. Kristina Nelson gave up her earrings. And when it was over, coach Muffet McGraw gave in to her emotions.

But there was no way Notre Dame was going to give away its chance to claim this particular Atlantic Coast Conference women’s basketball title.

Not after the Irish arrived right at the doorstep of it by leaping over injury obstacle after injury obstacle after injury obstacle after injury obstacle during the last year.

With Young scoring 22 points, Arike Ogunbowale 21, Marina Mabrey 17 and senior Kathryn Westbeld 16 on Senior Day, Notre Dame blasted free of what was just a two-point lead early in the third quarter to roll past No. 21 North Carolina State 86-67 on Sunday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion.

With the victory, the No. 5-ranked Irish tied No. 4 Louisville for the ACC regular-season crown, each team closing at 15-1.

“I couldn’t be prouder of any team. This was definitely the most rewarding championship I think we’ve had,” said McGraw after claiming her 13th regular-season league title as ND coach to go with 10 league tourney trophies.

“It feels great that we battled through the adversity,” Mabrey said. “Everyone thought we were doomed with all the injuries we had, but we kept fighting and focusing on what we still had.”

McGraw became visibly misty during the postgame celebration.

“I think it was just a lot of emotion from Senior Day, but also just a lot of emotion knowing this team has really overachieved to get this far,” the coach said. “To come in without so many players and to be regular-season champs again, I think it’s a real emotional moment for me.”

Notre Dame never got All-American Brianna Turner back this season after at one point anticipating she might return by January from a knee injury last March. Then Mychal Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury right before the season, Mikayla Vaughn sustained one after just six games and Lili Thompson was knocked out for the same reason at 14 games.

But the Irish (27-2) forged onward. Sunday’s victory was their 12th straight on the heels of their humbling 100-67 loss Jan. 11 at Louisville.

“We kept losing people throughout the year, but we never put our heads down, never felt sorry for ourselves,” McGraw said. “(The players) just came back to work every single day. They stepped up, I think individually and as a team. They handled the adversity and that’s the kind of thing we want to teach them. That’s what sports does for you, teaches you a lot of life lessons, and handling adversity’s definitely one of them.”

The Wolfpack (22-7, 11-5) — who had won 10 of their last 11 games — supplied a bit of adversity for a while, getting as close as 45-43 at six minutes to go in the third quarter after trailing by as many as 11 in the first half.

Notre Dame, though, answered that two-point spread by outscoring State 21-6 over the remainder of the period for a 66-49 advantage. Then the Irish added the first seven points of the final quarter to remove any doubt.

“I think we made some big plays defensively,” McGraw said. “We rebounded, we got deflections, we got steals, we got the break going. We had a lot of transition opportunities with the ball screen that were very effective for us.”

ND scored 30 more points than the Wolfpack were allowing on the season.

Young’s game-high 22 were one short of her career high, and were efficiently crafted on 8-of-11 from the field and 6-of-7 at the line. She also notched team highs of five assists and four steals.

“I think it was just through making reads on offense and trying to get us going in transition that I was able to score,” the sophomore said.

Young did nearly all her damage after literally tossing aside the protective face mask she’d been required to wear since suffering a broken nose in December.

Sunday was the first day she was allowed to go without it, but she began the game wearing it anyway.

Then when the mask was bumped loose about four minutes in, she threw it off to the side as play continued.

“I feel like sometimes I get hit more because I have the mask on and it sticks out,” Young said.

Ogunbowale’s 21 points for the Irish included 4-of-9 shooting from 3-point land, while Mabrey’s 17 featured 3-of-5 outside the arc.

“Jackie, Arike and Marina, they came to play,” McGraw said. “They were not going to be denied that championship.”

Each of the trio pointed to their four teammates being honored on Senior Day — Westbeld, Nelson, Johnson and Thompson — as part of their motivation in not being denied.

“I think they’ve just done so much for this program,” Ogunbowale said. “We owed it to them to let them go out in their last regular-season game with a win.”

Not that the two seniors who were able to play didn’t do plenty to help themselves.

Westbeld’s 17 points came on 8-of-9 shooting from the field to go with six rebounds, four assists and two steals.

Nelson, doing a bit of everything, added four points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals, a blocked shot and a drawn charge in 26 minutes.

Due to McGraw’s tradition of seniors always starting on Senior Day, Nelson made her first career start in her 125th career appearance.

That start, and thereby the game’s start, was delayed when the officials reminded her to remove her earrings.

“It’s a little different from when you have time to take off our earrings on the bench,” Nelson said with a smile. “I kind of forgot about them. Actually, I do normally take them off in the locker room, but I guess it was just a different routine and I forgot.”

Irish notes

• Notre Dame earned its seventh straight regular-season conference crown — the first two of those in the Big East, the last five in the ACC.

• The Irish improved to 40-0 all-time at home in ACC play and won their 23rd straight home game overall.

• Next up is the ACC Tournament this coming week in Greensboro, N.C. Based on head-to-head, Louisville will be the No. 1 seed and the four-time defending champion Irish will be No. 2, but both teams, along with No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Duke, will receive double byes into Friday’s quarterfinals.

“We’re in shape, there’s no challenge,” Mabrey said about the possibility of playing three games in three days at the ACC Tourney. “We’re going to keep on fighting. I think our guards have a motor that doesn’t really die, and the posts really recover well after games.”

N.C. STATE (22-7): Nelson 5-9 5-6 15, Maize 3-5 3-4 9, Ealey 6-11 2-2 18, Konig 2-11 0-0 5, Leslie 5-12 0-0 10, Cassell 1-2 0-0 2, Jones 1-3 0-0 2, Rogers 0-0 0-0 0, Cole 0-0 0-0 0, Crutchfield 1-3 0-0 3, Hawkins 1-2 0-0 3, Totals 25-58 10-12 67.

NOTRE DAME (27-2): Nelson 2-5 0-0 4, Westbeld 8-9 0-0 16, Mabrey 6-12 2-2 17, Ogunbowale 8-19 1-2 21, Young 8-11 6-7 22, Butler 0-0 0-0 0, Patterson 2-3 0-0 4, Shepard 1-4 0-0 2, Benz 0-0 0-0 0, Cole 0-1 0-0 0, Totals 35-64 9-11 86.

NC State 16 15 18 18 — 67

Notre Dame 17 22 27 20 — 86

3-Point Goals--NC State 7-23 (Ealey 4-5, Konig 1-10, Leslie 0-3, Jones 0-2, Crutchfield 1-2, Hawkins 1-1), Notre Dame 7-15 (Mabrey 3-5, Ogunbowale 4-9, Cole 0-1). Assists--NC State 15 (Konig 5), Notre Dame 21 (Young 5). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--NC State 28 (Nelson 7), Notre Dame 37 (Nelson 6). Total Fouls--NC State 11, Notre Dame 11. Technical Fouls--None.A--8,786.

Notre Dame's Jackie Young, center, looks to pass from the floor with pressure from North Carolina State's Kiara Leslie (11) and Aislinn Konig (1) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)