Toughness a calling card for Notre Dame women's basketball

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Marina Mabrey sported the perfect badge to suggest how much she wants to be playing for a national championship come Easter Sunday — a big egg on her forehead.

Courtesy of that bump, she also provided a fitting visual to punctuate Notre Dame’s bumpy, injury-crammed, improbable road into the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four.

And in response to that bump, Mabrey, of course, sported that feisty, unrelenting grit that continues to course through this Irish team.

“As soon as it happened,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Tuesday afternoon of the fast-forming knot on Mabrey’s noggin after the junior guard collided with the floor in Monday night’s 84-74 regional championship win over Oregon, “she came over to the bench like, ‘I’m fine! Leave me alone!’

“So you know when to stay away from her.”

Well, unless you’re a brave teammate who’s also trying to humor her.

“I was like, ‘I had an ugly black eye. This is nothing compared to that, you’re fine,’” smiling senior forward Kathryn Westbeld shared Tuesday of what she told Mabrey shortly after the incident.

“It really doesn’t look as bad as it probably seemed on TV,” Westbeld said, “(but) I know it hurts a little bit more than it looks. She’s just gotta ice it and we’ll be all right.”

By virtue of their victory over the Ducks, the Irish (33-3) earned a spot opposite top-ranked nemesis Connecticut (36-0) in Friday’s national semifinals at Columbus, Ohio.

In a Final Four that unites all four No. 1 seeds, Louisville (36-2) and Mississippi State (36-1) meet in the opening semifinal at 7 p.m., followed by ND-UConn at approximately 9:30.

Survivors return on Easter Sunday for the 6 p.m. title game.

For Notre Dame, its four lost players — All-American Brianna Turner, Mychal Johnson, Mikayla Vaughn and Lili Thompson — to season-ending knee injuries has been well-documented, yet even if the Irish hadn’t had to endure any of those, the other injuries they’ve had to navigate also seem disproportionate by any reasonable standard.

Mabrey’s bump on the head — sustained when she went down in the opening minute of the fourth quarter after locking arms with Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu and then being fallen on by ND teammate Jackie Young — was just the latest in a series of head-shaking misadventures for this team.

There was Westbeld recovering more slowly than she or doctors projected from offseason ankle surgery, the pain stretching well into the season.

There was also Westbeld with that aforementioned black eye sustained in the middle of the season, and Westbeld yet again with a serious sprain to her other ankle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. She’s still not fully recovered from that.

There was Young suffering an early-season broken nose in practice. She wore an outdated mask initially and was clearly affected, then a newer version for a few weeks that she still didn’t like before discarding it for good in the middle of a game.

There was Jessica Shepard at least twice being slowed by ankle injuries, and Mabrey suffering a late-season, sensitive-to-the-touch hand injury that she still had wrapped as of Monday night.

“We keep shaking our heads,” McGraw said of how gratifying it is that the Irish have overcome all the setbacks to reach the Final Four. “I think I’m kind of torn between crying and laughing. There’s so much emotion because of what we’ve been through. The resilience of this team, how they just are relentless in pursuit of their goal, they didn’t ever quit or question whether or not we could do it.”

Now that they have done it, there’s little time to bask in it.

The Irish played the last of the four regional finals and played it after 9 p.m. Monday way out on the West Coast in Spokane, Wash., before flying back that same night and into the morning.

For Westbeld, the arrival in South Bend was immediately followed by another treatment for her ankle with trainer Anne Marquez.

“I don’t know the specific time, but it was around 6 a.m.,” Westbeld said of when she finally got to her apartment.

She didn’t stay long, either, soon heading out to classes, then even giving impromptu interviews to local media in the early afternoon because she happened to be passing by just after McGraw was done conducting a scheduled press session.

“We have the rest of the day to catch up on sleep,” assured Westbeld, who will be competing in the Final Four just 75 miles from her native Kettering, Ohio, “and really the rest of the week. I think Coach will kind of take it light on us the rest of the week.”

Indeed, Irish players were off from workouts entirely on Tuesday, and McGraw said that practices on Wednesday and Thursday — after the team flies to Columbus on Wednesday morning — will be “very easy … definitely like walk-throughs.”

The showdown with Connecticut will be a rematch of a Dec. 3 meeting that the host Huskies roared back to win 80-71 after trailing 65-54 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.

It was a Thompson 3-pointer that gave ND that 11-point lead. She’s also the one notable player from either side who played that day and is not available now.

Nevertheless, “we’ve kind of gotten into a bit of groove with what we’re doing,” McGraw said of her team that has won 18 of its last 19, the lone loss being 74-72 to Louisville. “(Connecticut’s) certainly playing better than they did at that point, too.”

The Huskies had their run of four straight national titles snapped with last year’s semifinal loss to Mississippi State, but they’ve beaten the Irish seven straight times, including most recently in tourney meetings in the 2014 and 2015 national title games.

“Our rivalry with UConn has not been quite as good a rivalry in the last couple years from our side,” McGraw said.

The Huskies have won 11 national titles overall, each under coach Geno Auriemma, while ND’s only championship came in 2001 under McGraw.

UConn, featuring several veteran stars, is playing in its 11th straight Final Four.

Though the Irish are playing in their sixth in the last eight years, it’s also their first in the last three — making Westbeld the only healthy ND player who has appeared in one before.

So what, the Irish captain insisted Tuesday.

“I don’t think anyone’s nervous about playing Connecticut,” Westbeld assessed of her teammates. “I think we are just excited that we are 40 minutes away from (playing for) a national championship, so whatever we have to do to get there is what we’re going to do.”

Notre Dame guard Marina Mabrey holds a piece of the net after her team defeated Oregon 84-74 in a regional final at the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Monday, March 26, 2018, Spokane, Wash. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

WHO: Notre Dame (33-3) vs. Connecticut (36-0) in NCAA Tournament national semifinal.

WHERE: Nationwide Arena (19,500), Columbus, Ohio.

WHEN: Friday, approximately 9:30 p.m., following Louisville (36-2) vs. Mississippi State (36-1) in 7 p.m. semifinal.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).