Notre Dame women won't let late ACC basketball loss linger

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — As the Irish wait to learn their seeding, it’s easy to imagine they might be seething.

After all, not since 2012 has the Notre Dame women’s basketball team had this much in-season time to stew between games when coming off a loss.

That’s because ND had stormed to five straight league tournament titles before being edged 74-72 by Louisville in last Sunday’s Atlantic Coast Conference final.

Nevertheless, the Irish insist they’re not seething as they await Monday’s NCAA Tournament selection show (7 p.m. ESPN) — at least not as much as they’re simply resting and engaging in reasoning.

“It went right down to the wire, even though I don’t think any of us thought that we played a particularly good game, so I think that’s really good to kind of have that in the back of our head,” senior forward Kathryn Westbeld said Thursday of the loss to Louisville. “It gives us confidence for when we do play well, how good we actually can be.”

No. 5-ranked Notre Dame has been pretty good as it is.

The Irish have compiled their 29-3 record against the nation’s No. 1-rated schedule. Two of their losses came against those No. 3 Cardinals and the other against season-long unanimous No. 1 Connecticut in a game that visiting ND led midway through the fourth quarter.

“It’s been really good,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Thursday of her players’ collective mood since that second loss to Louisville. “I think you learn a lot about them after a loss, and I think they are definitely not satisfied with where we are right now. Even though we’ve only lost to (projected) No. 1 seeds, they really feel like they can play better.”

“We have to move on,” star junior guard Arike Ogunbowale said at Thursday’s practice, which was the second of just two practices ND scheduled over the week following the ACC Tourney.

“We’re not dwelling on (Louisville),” Ogunbowale said. “We have the NCAA Tournament coming up, so that’s what we have to focus on right now.”

The Irish are expected to be awarded a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tourney, with UConn, Louisville, Mississippi State and Baylor the other prime contenders for the four coveted No. 1s.

Regardless, by virtue of being a certain overall top-16 club, Notre Dame will serve as a host during the first two rounds of the six-round, 64-team event, and will begin play either Friday or Saturday.

The Irish also will head into the chase for the national championship with the knowledge that they handled three games over three straight days relatively smoothly last week despite being down to the seven healthy scholarship players they’ve been at since Dec. 31.

Furthermore, they have the knowledge that they won’t have to pull that three-in-three again. In the NCAA Tourney, they’ll get one day of rest before their potential second, fourth and sixth games, and plenty more than that before the others.

“Absolutely,” Westbeld said of whether that’s a comforting feeling.

Westbeld labeled the three games in a row last week “really exhausting mentally and physically,” but added that “conditioning-wise, we were all fine really. … I’m really impressed with our conditioning right now, so I don’t think playing two games (in three days in the NCAA Tourney) will be a problem at all.”

“I thought we played well for three games in three days,” Ogunbowale concurred. “Our game the day before Louisville, that was pretty difficult with Florida State (ultimately a 90-80 ND win). I thought we showed pretty good endurance for three games in three days. For us to be able to go up and down like that on the third game against a tough team, I think that’s really a positive for us.”

Arike staying put

Ogunbowale — besides recently being announced as a contender for a couple major national player of the year awards and being accorded USA Today All-America second-team honors this past week — has demonstrated herself as a leading pro prospect, but says she’ll definitely be back with the Irish for her senior season.

“I’m too young even if I wanted to leave,” Ogunbowale said, referring to the WNBA’s eligibility rules, “but I won’t be going anywhere anyway.”

Per the WNBA’s website, players must turn at least 22 in the year they’re drafted or must already have exhausted their college eligibility.

Ogunbowale turned 21 just last week.

In 2015, Jewell Loyd declared her eligibility after her junior season with the Irish and wound up as the overall No. 1 pick that April, but she also turned 22 that October.

Ogunbowale, averaging 20.2 points, is on pace to join Katryna Gaither in 1996-97 (20.4) and Beth Morgan in 1995-96 (20.2) as the only ND players to average at least 20 over a full season.