ACC Women's Tourney could test Notre Dame's depth, endurance

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame, still untouched all-time in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament by that nasty “L” word — losing — can’t help but think at least a little bit this time about another unpleasant “L” word — Louisville.

That’s apparent even with the No. 2-seeded Irish and the No. 1-seeded Cardinals each needing to first win two other women’s basketball games this weekend before the two regular-season co-champs can square off in Sunday’s 2 p.m. tourney final at Greensboro, N.C.

The Cards crushed ND, 100-67, when the teams met Jan. 11 in Louisville, a game that has stuck out like a sore aberration given what the Irish have done in every other outing this season, and a game that ultimately cost them a fifth straight outright league crown.

“I’m ready to take on whoever we’re playing, but you know, it might be kind of nice to get that rematch,” ND senior forward Kathryn Westbeld conceded this week about the possibility of encountering the Cardinals again.

“I think probably it’s in the back of everyone’s mind, just because that game was so bad,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw acknowledged of her players wanting another crack at Louisville. “So I think that’s maybe our incentive (for the quarterfinal and semifinal). We want to get to that game.”

No. 5-ranked, four-time defending ACC Tourney champ ND (27-2) begins its quest to get to that game by taking on Virginia (18-12) in a 6 p.m. quarterfinal Friday. The fourth-ranked Cards (29-2) play in a 2 p.m. quarterfinal against Virginia Tech (18-12).

Then in Saturday’s semifinals, the Irish could face the No. 3 seed in No. 11-rated Florida State (24-5).

It’s the Seminoles who afforded ND the chance to tie Louisville for the ACC regular-season title by edging the host Cardinals 50-49 on Jan. 21 — exactly one week before the Irish thanked the host Noles by burying them 100-69 as part of what’s been a wacky set of results among the league’s top three teams.

ND and Louisville each went on to finish 15-1 — the Cards are top-seeded in the tourney by virtue of head-to-head — while FSU closed third at 12-4.

The Irish and Cardinals also each picked up don’t-count No. 1 seeds recently from the NCAA Tournament committee as part of that group’s final in-season reveal, but that hardly means both will get them when the actual pairings are released Monday, March 12.

“I think you absolutely have to come in on a win to get a 1 seed,” McGraw said, thus projecting that any ACC Tourney loser will not receive one.

Unbeatens Connecticut and Mississippi State appear near locks for two of the four No. 1 seeds, while Baylor (28-1) looks poised to grab one if it can win the Big 12 Tourney in which it will be soundly favored.

“It doesn’t matter,” McGraw added about the necessity of being a 1 seed. “We went (to the Final Four) with a six seed (in 1997). We’ve been there as a 2 seed (in 2011).”

Further, ND has not made it to the Final Four the last two years despite its fifth and sixth straight No. 1 seeds.

No matter what seed the Irish do land, they won’t have to play even two straight days at any point in the NCAA Tourney.

In this weekend’s ACC Tourney, though, they’ll be tasked with playing three straight days, provided they win at least their first two games — and they’ll have to do it with just the seven healthy scholarship players they’ve been at since Dec. 31.

“It definitely takes a toll on the body, especially with seven players,” Westbeld said of the conference tourney set-up. “I know after one game I’m personally waking up in the morning feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus. Physically, it’s going to be rough, but I think we’re in great shape right now. I think it’s a thing we can handle.”

ND did already play on three straight days once while winning the Gulf Coast Showcase in November, but that came when the Irish had nine healthy scholarship players.

“Hopefully, part of it is adrenaline,” said junior guard Marina Mabrey, one of three Irish players along with Arike Ogunbowale and Jackie Young who are averaging over 33 minutes per game and typically looking as fresh in the 33rd as in the first. “I don’t think playing an extra day or three days in a row should have a strain on anything. We should just be excited to play and kind of push through it.”

Arike, Muffet denied

If the Irish are to beat Louisville this week, it will have to be on the court.

To the admitted chagrin of McGraw, the Cardinals won each of the ACC’s major postseason awards Wednesday when Asia Durr was named player of the year and Jeff Walz was accorded coach of the year.

Durr and Walz each prevailed in both the coaches’ balloting and the media balloting.

“I was disappointed,” McGraw said of Ogunbowale not taking player of the year. “I think she’s the best player in the conference. I think if we had gone undefeated, she would’ve been player of the year. (She had) that one game that she didn’t play as well as she probably wanted to, and that was probably the deciding vote.”

That one game was UL’s 100-67 win. In that one, Durr was nearly unstoppable during a 36-point show that included 13-of-18 field-goal shooting with eight 3-pointers. Ogunbowale went 2-of-9 and finished with five points.

On the season, though, the statistics of the two junior guards have been comparable.

Ogunbowale is averaging 20.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.6 steals and a 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio. She has a net field goal percentage of 50.0 and is at 79.5 on free throws. She’s compiled her figures against the No. 1-ranked schedule in the country.

Durr is averaging 19.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals and a 1.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. She has a net field goal percentage of 57.3 and is at 82.6 on free throws. She’s compiled her figures against the No. 20-ranked schedule in the country.

Ogunbowale smiled when told how much McGraw backed her case for player of the year, but didn’t care to add to that case.

“I’m not really worried about awards,” Ogunbowale said. “I just want to win the ACC Tournament. It really doesn’t matter as long as we get the championship.”

Similarly, McGraw said she didn’t care about the coach of the year award, other than “it would’ve been nice for the staff, though, because they’ve done a great job this year. I think they are phenomenal. It’s a team award when we win it, so it’s not that big of a deal.”

Already a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee last fall and a six-time conference coach of the year, McGraw has navigated the injury-ravaged Irish to their 27-2 mark against the nation’s premier schedule.

“I don’t think anybody had a harder job than she had this year,” Mabrey said, “but she just continues to do her job every single day and work with what we have no matter what, and that’s good for Coach of the Year in my book, so I don’t think it really matters what anybody else says.”

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 5 Notre Dame (27-2) vs. Virginia (18-12) in ACC Tourney quarterfinal.

WHERE: Greensboro Coliseum (21,021), Greensboro, N.C.

WHEN: Friday, 6 p.m.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACC Network Extra (subject to blackout).

TV: Fox Sports Prime Ticket.

NOTING: If ND wins its 6 p.m. quarterfinal Friday against Virginia, it’ll be a quick turnaround with an afternoon semifinal on Saturday. The first semifinal will be at noon, followed by ND’s at 2:30, both on ESPNU. Sunday’s 2 p.m. championship will be on ESPN2. … The Irish, in their fifth season in the league, are trying to become the first team in the 41-year history of ACC women’s basketball to put together both five regular-season and five conference tourney titles in the same years. Duke won a record five straight tourney crowns from 2000-2004, but did not win the regular-season title in the first season of that string. Virginia owns the best regular-season streak with six titles from 1991-96. … ND defeated host Virginia 83-69 on Feb. 15, leading 67-48 after three quarters. The No. 7-seeded Cavaliers advanced to the quarterfinals with a 60-58 second-round win Thursday night over 10th-seeded Georgia Tech. The top four seeds in the field got double byes, the Nos. 5 through 9 seeds single byes and the Nos. 10 to 15 seeds no bye.

QUOTING: “We’ve been going through a lot of struggles with injuries and all that, but I think we have the endurance and strength to be able to last three days.” — Arike Ogunbowale, Notre Dame guard, on the prospect of the Irish and their seven healthy scholarship players competing three straight days in the ACC Tournament.

Notre Dame's Kathryn Westbeld (33) grabs the ball next to North Carolina State's DD Rogers (21) during the second half of a 86-67 Irish win on Feb. 25. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)