Kathryn Westbeld turns super sub for Notre Dame women's basketball

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Slide over Willis Reed, you have some company as an inspiration in Kathryn Westbeld.

And, unlike the injured New York Knicks star in the 1970 NBA Finals, she even stretched out the suspense until halfway into the game.

It appeared Notre Dame’s injured senior forward absolutely was not going to play Sunday night when the Irish faced Villanova in the NCAA Tournament’s second round at Purcell Pavilion.

She didn’t participate in pregame warm-ups after suffering an ankle injury two days earlier in the opening round.

She barely moved from her spot on the bench throughout the first half.

But with the ninth-seeded Wildcats looking to cook up a stunning upset by forging a 45-45 tie at the half, Westbeld started the second half.

The home crowd met the development with delirium.

So, clearly, did the home team by virtue of its play.

With Westbeld on the court, the top-seeded Irish turned a deadlock into a blowout, burying the Wildcats 98-72.

"She changed the course of the game," said Irish coach Muffet McGraw of Westbeld who was in a walking boot before the game. "I thought we defended a lot better in the second half and with Kathryn we're a very different team."

Once Westbeld got in, Notre Dame couldn’t, nor did it want to, get her out.

The Irish outscored Villanova 28-8 in the third period to take command.

Westbeld didn’t score in the quarter, and it didn’t matter.

She played every minute. Typical of Westbeld, she made reads on defense, she got key rebounds, she set up baskets.

"It wasn't as bad as last year, thank goodness," said Westbeld, who was slow to return this season after having surgery on her right ankle last April. "I had treatment 2-3 times Friday and 10 times over the next 24 hours. I kept it elevated as much as possible. I didn't know if I would play at all; I was on the edge of my seat the whole first half."

“The Glue,” as she’s known, restored continuity and confidence at both ends of the floor.

 "I thought it was a motivating and inspiring moment for the team," McGraw said of her start in the second half.

Notre Dame (31-3) earned a spot opposite No. 4 seed Texas A&M (26-9) in a Spokane Regional semifinal Saturday.

For the second game in a row — after it hadn’t happened in more than 19 years — the Irish had three players score 20-plus points.

Jessica Shepard tallied 25 with 10 rebounds in her fourth straight double-double, Jackie Young netted a career-high 24 points and Arike Ogunbowale also scored 24.

Westbeld wound up playing 16 minutes. She got her lone basket in the fourth quarter. She also had six rebounds.

Marina Mabrey, who scored 15 points for the winners and made three steals, understood what Westbeld meant to the club.

"Her presence on the court calms everybody else," Mabrey said. "She came into the game and reminded us that this isn't how we play. She reminded us that we are going to play defense."

Villanova’s spread offense had confounded Notre Dame throughout much of the first half.

The Wildcats drained 10-of-15 shots outside the arc as ND tried both man-to-man and zone looks. The visitors also scored a few buckets on isolation drives against the Irish bigs.

Walk-on Kaitlin Cole made an extremely — and unusually — early appearance for ND at the 2:18 mark of the first quarter, another suggestion that there was no way Westbeld was going to play.

To her credit, Cole didn’t hurt the cause, either. The Irish were down 15-13 when she came in, and down 26-25 when she went out five minutes and 34 seconds later.

Cole then reappeared at 3:28 of the second period with the Irish up 37-34. They fell behind 45-43, but she got the putback basket just before the halftime horn that deadlocked the score at 45-all.

It was the 15th tie of the first half to go with nine lead changes. Each team’s largest lead of the half was five.

The second half was as different from that as could be.

After Westbeld got the half’s first rebound, Young scored at the other end as ND took the lead for good.

The Irish improved to 20-2 all-time in NCAA Tourney play at home with their 14th straight such win. They’ve won 25 straight games overall.

ND earned its ninth straight Sweet 16 trip and will next seek its seventh Elite Eight in the last eight years.

Villanova (23-9) was making its first NCAA Tourney appearance since 2013.

The Wildcats finished the second half 0-for-5 from 3-point range to go with that 10-for-15 first half. Junior Jannah Tucker led them with 19 points. Sophomore Kelly Jekot added 16.

Notre Dame’s contest against Texas A&M will be at 4 or 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be a rematch of the 2011 national championship that the Aggies won 76-70 in Indianapolis.

The programs have met just once since, with the Irish prevailing, 83-74, at a December 2012 invitational in Las Vegas.

Host A&M stormed from a 68-53 deficit over the final 8:18 on Sunday to stun DePaul 80-79.

Freshman sensation Chennedy Carter scored 19 points in that final 8:18 to finish the game with 37. On the season, she’s averaging 22.4 points and 4.9 assists.

Carter is from the same high school — Mansfield (Texas) Timberview — as injured Irish grad-student guard Lili Thompson.

I am so incredibly grateful to play for this University & to have been able to play at home one last time! Had to hold back tears as I walked off for the last time, but had to smile for all the great memories I have made with everyone here. Now we’re off to Spokane!✈️☘️

— Kathryn Westbeld (@K_Westbeld33) March 19, 2018

Notre Dame players celebrate a late-game basket during a second-round game in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament Sunday, March 18, 2018, in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame won 98-72. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)