Noie: Notre Dame's Kathryn Westbeld looks to end collegiate career on ultimate note
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Three college seasons and more than 100 games later, on the eve of her final one in a Notre Dame women’s basketball uniform, senior forward Kathryn Westbeld still remembers the scene for its silence.
The despair that dominated the locker room the last time coach Muffet McGraw’s program was in this position — one win from the school’s second national championship. Westbeld was a freshman reserve in 2015 when Notre Dame fell shy of its ultimate goal that early-April night at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.
When it was over, and Connecticut had stayed on the court to celebrate and cut down nets and pose for pictures after a 10-point win, Westbeld and her teammates were left with nothing but quiet. The stillness was rather eerie and a whole lot emotional.
Losing’s lousy, but losing a national championship game’s the absolute worst. An emptiness hangs there like a heavy fog. Everything just ends. Over. Done. No one knows what to say. Or do.
“You can hear a pin drop,” Westbeld said Saturday afternoon. “It’s so disappointing. What really stuck out was the seniors and how devastated they were. To not send them out on a good note was heartbreaking. They ended their careers with a loss.”
That Westbeld felt she didn't do enough (five scoreless minutes) for seniors Madison Cable, Whitney Holloway and Markisha Wright in their last game still stings.
“I hope my teammates can look at it that way and send me out the best way possible,” she said.
Win or lose Sunday (6 p.m., ESPN) against fellow No. 1 seed Mississippi State (37-1), the curtain closes at Nationwide Arena on Westbeld’s college career. The team’s lone healthy scholarship player from the 2014 recruiting class is in this position thanks to Notre Dame's national semifinal victory late Friday over previously undefeated and top-ranked Connecticut (37-1).
Westbeld played like a senior should. Sophomore guard Jackie Young was out-of-her mind good. Junior guard Arike Ogunbowale hit the game’s biggest shot in overtime, one that will live for years. Jessica Shepard was warrior-like in the low post. Marina Mabrey was Jersey tough during trying times. Afterward, they danced around like kids let out of school early for spring break.
Barely 12 hours later, it remained a popular topic of conversation downtown in this city — the wild swings, the even wilder locker room. The lack of any sort of solid sleep. The euphoria of shocking the college basketball world.
It wasn’t just a game. It was a happening. A where-were-you-when moment.
Westbeld and her Irish teammates want no more of it. Sure, it was a great win. A benchmark program win. But beating the Huskies simply sent the Irish one step closer to their ultimate goal. That’s it. Aside from the adversity of four season-ending knee injuries and the two losses to Atlantic Coast Conference colleague Louisville. This is where Notre Dame always planned to be the first day of April.
“It was a huge win for us, but that wasn’t the win that we wanted to get,” Westbeld said Friday night's 91-89 overtime thriller. “We want to win a national championship. We had our fun (Friday) and got to celebrate everything. Now it’s back to business.”
Back to business in Westbeld’s home state. Her parents’ home is about an hour to the southwest, in the Dayton suburb of Kettering. Able to stay close to home to end her career may be the extra karma kick that Westbeld and Notre Dame need to do this the right way. Their way.
Notre Dame last won a national championship in 2001 and did so in the home state of a key senior. Guard Niele Ivey was a Missouri native playing her final college game in St. Louis. Seventeen years later, a key senior will play her final college game — for the national championship — in her home state.
Westbeld also wears the same jersey number as did Ivey — 33.
“We’ve talked about that a bit,” said Ivey, currently an Irish associate head coach. “She has an opportunity to go out a champion in her home state with everybody supporting her.
“Great players step up in great moments, and she has.”
Westbeld and Notre Dame will play with the same refuse-to-fold mindset that allowed it to ignore a 13-point deficit to Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, a nine-point deficit to Oregon in the Elite Eight and the 11-point hole that it tumbled into against Connecticut. What challenge haven’t these Irish answered?
“We’ve had that mentality all year long,” Westbeld said. “It’s the love that we have for the game and for each other and being able to run through the wall for each other.”
Many walls have fallen this season. One more remains.
As raucous a scene as the Irish locker room was early Saturday morning, the quick turnaround was apparent that afternoon. Many of the players and the coaches and even the media looked like they’d pulled all-nighters. Few players got a good night’s sleep; Ivey guessed she got about an hour; McGraw maybe less. There was a serious energy emptiness apparent. The team’s scheduled practice at Nationwide likely wouldn’t run anywhere close to the allotted two hours.
Getting back to the hotel and getting off their feet was more important than getting back on defense in drills.
“It’s emotionally draining,” McGraw said. “It’s exhausting trying to figure out how to get our energy back.”
The Easter Bunny aside, Sunday night was coming quickly. Notre Dame again had to rest, recharge and refocus. Four more quarters. Forty more minutes. One team’s leaving Ohio champions. Exhaustion's not an option.
“It definitely takes a toll on the body a little bit, but when you’re competing to win a national championship, none of that matters,” Westbeld said. “It’s really just the heart that comes out and is what’s going to carry us the next game.”
The next game is Westbeld’s last. There are no more tomorrows. She can rest her sore ankle next week and next month. But not now. Nothing to hold back. It’s time to let it all go. And flow. It’s time for her and her teammates to finish this journey.
Finish it first. Finish it confidently. Cohesively.
Anything but quietly.