Notre Dame women's hoops team draws No. 1 seed, paired with Cal State Northridge

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame captured one of those coveted No. 1 seeds after all, not that it was necessarily all that coveted by the Irish.

“I think for us, all that mattered was making the tournament,” junior forward Jessica Shepard said after ND was announced Monday night as the No. 1 seed in the Spokane (Wash.) Regional quadrant of the NCAA women’s basketball tourney.

“No it didn’t matter to us at all,” senior forward Kathryn Westbeld concurred from a watch party at Club Naimoli after Notre Dame earned a No. 1 seed for the seventh consecutive year. “I think all of us are just ready to start, ready to get into tournament play.”

The Irish (29-3) will open at home on Friday with a first-ever meeting against No. 16 seed Cal State Northridge (19-15).

That game will tip at 5 p.m. and be followed by No. 8 seed South Dakota State (26-6) going against No. 9 Villanova (22-8).

Winners return to Purcell Pavilion on Sunday at a time to be announced.

The Cal State Northridge Matadors earned their automatic bid as the surprise winner of the Big West Tourney after going 8-8 in league play during the regular season.

Many bracketologists had projected over the past week that the fourth and final No. 1 seed would come down to ND, which faced the nation’s top-ranked schedule, and Baylor (31-1).

The Bears were installed as a No. 2 and sent to the Lexington (Ky.) Regional quadrant.

The Irish, besides overcoming well-documented season-ending knee injuries to four scholarship players, the last of those on Dec. 31, also overcame a lopsided Jan. 11 loss to Louisville.

“I don’t think at that point I was thinking (about a) No. 1 seed,” coach Muffet McGraw said following Monday’s selection announcement. “I was wondering at halftime of the Tennessee game (a week later) if we would make the tournament.”

Instead, in that game against the Volunteers, ND set a program record by coming back from a 23-point deficit. Then they dominated most of the rest of their opponents before being edged by Louisville, 74-72, in last week’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title game.

“I think for us, it wasn’t about what we didn’t have,” Shepard said of overcoming the injuries to Mychal Johnson, Mikayla Vaughn and Lili Thompson, to go with All-American Brianna Turner already being sidelined for the entire season after being injured last March.

“It was about what we did have,” Shepard continued. “You look at our starting five, you look at the two subs who come off the bench, and it’s a tough matchup for any team.”

“It is quite a compliment to what we did all year,” McGraw said of ND ultimately receiving a No. 1 seed again.

Among others in the Spokane Regional quadrant are No. 2 seed Oregon (30-4), No. 3 seed Ohio State (27-6) and No. 4 seed Texas A&M (24-9).

The winner of the Spokane group will be pitted in the Final Four semifinal against the survivor of the Albany (N.Y.) Regional — which is the quadrant that houses the overall No. 1 Huskies (32-0).

Louisville (32-2) is the top seed in the Lexington Regional group and and Mississippi State (32-1) No. 1 in the Kansas City quadrant.

“It’s a long, long way away, but we’ve been out there,” sophomore guard Jackie Young said of possibly heading West again. “We played at Oregon State at the beginning of the season, but we’re just going to take it one game at a time right now anyway.”

“Absolutely, it doesn’t matter to us,” Westbeld said of of ND being pointed westward. “We’ll get on a plane to anywhere. It’s basketball.”

The Irish will head into Friday’s game with 12 straight NCAA Tournament home wins. Their last such loss was in 2009 to Minnesota, 79-71.

Overall, ND has won 23 straight home games going back to early last season and is 80-2 at Purcell spanning the last five years.

A year ago, Notre Dame hammered No. 16 seed Robert Morris 79-49 in the opening round at home, then escaped two nights later in overtime against No. 9 Purdue, 88-82.

That was the game in which Turner suffered the knee injury that has kept her out ever since.

ND stormed by No. 5 seed Ohio State, 99-76, in the Lexington Regional semifinal without Turner, but was nipped by No. 2 Stanford in the regional final, 76-75.

Notre Dame players laugh after a segment about the team on the TV during the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament selection party, Monday at Naimoli Club inside Purcell Pavilion. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)