Notebook: Laughter best medicine for Notre Dame women's basketball

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — All season, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team has rolled with the punches in the way it’s handled an implausible parade of injuries.

But on Monday, the Irish also demonstrated they could roll with the punchlines, at least for the most part.

The heartiest chuckle from the team as it was viewing ESPN’s NCAA Tournament selection coverage during a watch party occurred when well-meaning program host Maria Taylor — as part of a piece detailing ND’s injuries — summarized that “you certainly can’t spell miracle without ACL.”

On a night that the Irish and invited supporters mostly watched the selection show rather quietly and intently, the laughter at Taylor’s line was exceeded in terms of a loud reaction only by the couple times the Irish were reacting to being shown semi-live on the screen.

That ACL crack, of course, refers to ND’s “Tore Four,” or more specifically, the torn anterior cruciate ligaments that players Brianna Turner, Mychal Johnson, Mikayla Vaughn and Lili Thompson have all suffered since last March.

While most did laugh at Taylor’s humor, it should at least be noted that Turner quickly posted a GIF on Twitter that suggested at least mock, if not genuine, horror.

Villainous Villanova?

While there were the obligatory responses about not looking past Friday’s first-round opponent, Cal State Northridge (CSUN), when Notre Dame players were asked about potentially heading way West to the Spokane Regional, coach Muffet McGraw couldn’t help looking at least a little to what may lie between that first round and that Spokane trip.

“Looking at who’s coming to Notre Dame,” McGraw pointed out, “it will be an old friend from the Big East days — not a team I’m excited about even seeing in the gym.”

She was referring to Villanova, now in its 40th season under coach Harry Perretta.

Among all active head coaches in college basketball, McGraw’s lost to just three more often than she’s fallen to Perretta.

She stands 17-9 against him, having won the last four meetings, the most recent of those in 2013. McGraw’s also 11-36 against UConn’s Geno Auriemma, 13-13 against Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer and 19-12 against DePaul’s Doug Bruno.

Villanova (22-8) is the Spokane quadrant’s No. 9 seed and will face No. 8 South Dakota State (26-6) around 7:30 p.m. Friday at Purcell Pavilion.

That follows the 5 p.m. matchup between the top-seeded Irish (29-3) and 16th-seeded Matadors (19-15).

Both games are slated for ESPN2.

Precious Purcell

Though it was a foregone conclusion that Notre Dame, as an overall top-16 selection, was going to be hosting during the tourney’s first two rounds, that doesn’t mean the Irish aren’t cherishing the chance.

“It means so much,” said forward Kathryn Westbeld, who will be joined by Kristina Nelson as seniors playing their last home games. “These crowds have been absolutely amazing my four years. I can’t thank them enough, and for me to be able to play one more, two more times, however many, at our home court again, it means the world to me to give back to them.”

“We’re going to need everybody to get out here Friday night at 5 o’clock,” McGraw said of a time that might be tricky for some of ND’s working fans, but one that the coach decidedly prefers to last season’s 9 p.m. second-round assignment.

“We want a great crowd,” McGraw said. “We need a hostile environment, we need everybody, just like they’ve been supporting us all year long. Best fans in the country.”

Because Notre Dame is on spring break this week, the Irish won’t have the student representation that they would normally have.

The time for Sunday’s second-round game at Purcell won’t be set until sometime after Friday’s opening round.

This and that

• While Notre Dame has never played CSUN — which is making its third NCAA Tourney appearance in the last five years — there are multiple Irish players with California ties. The sidelined Thompson starred at Stanford before landing at ND, while walk-on Nicole Benz is from Valencia, which is just 19 miles from the Matadors’ campus in Northridge.

• Not only was Notre Dame’s schedule rated as the nation’s toughest by virtually any metric, but the Irish played an astonishing 16 teams that now find themselves in the NCAA Tourney. That also comes out to 18 games against those teams, given that they’ve faced fellow No. 1 seed Louisville and No. 3 seed Florida State twice each. ND is one of eight Atlantic Coast Conference clubs that made the field. That’s the most in the nation and ties a league record set in 2014 and matched in 2015.

Notre Dame players laugh about a TV delay during the NCAA Women's Tournament selection Monday party at Naimoli Club inside Purcell Pavilion Monday, March 12, 2018. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)