Noie: NCAA tournament finally here for defending national champion Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

It’s been 356 days since we were last here, at this point in a season, with the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.

In the NCAA tournament.

A whole baseball season slipped past. Same for college and professional football. Summer, fall, winter, all gone. The time changed. Twice. The calendar cartwheeled into a new year. Resolutions were made and likely quickly broken. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush went from the starter to the backup to the former Irish quarterback.

It’s been a grind, and sometimes a burden and maybe even a little bit of a bore. But at last, the Irish have arrived at this spot, their spot, prepared to chase the school’s third national championship.

A sweet repeat beckons. Here it is. Come and get it.

“We had a long year,” said graduate student Brianna Turner. “We’re really ready, really excited, focused.”

A No. 1 seed for the eighth-straight season, Notre Dame (30-3) opens tournament play Saturday at home (11 a.m., ESPN2) against No. 16 Bethune-Cookman (21-10). The days and dates and games that everyone’s waited for since that championship celebration on Easter Sunday night in Columbus, Ohio are here.

About time. The regular season was, well, regular. Maybe only to those outsiders who grew tired of a whole lot of lopsided wins. Inside the Irish, it was a different story.

“I don’t think we ever got bored,” said senior power forward Jessica Shepard. “There were times in the regular season we were complacent, but I don’t think we were ever sitting here like, ‘Oh, when is it going to be March?”

Earlier in her collegiate career, Shepard might have gotten bored. Disinterested with more games. More practices. More travel. More everything. That happens as a freshman or a sophomore. It’s hard to focus today and then even more tomorrow. Not so much when you’re an upperclassmen and you see the end closing quickly.

There were times this year when everything moved too quickly for Shepard.

“You kind of want to slow it down some times,” she said. “I don’t think March was far away at all this year. It’s your last year, so it just goes fast.”

Still, there were days when it seemed the grind never would end. Especially January. The long month was just that. The calendar states that it runs 31 days, but there were times when it seemed like 131. The Irish didn’t let that affect their effort. They went 7-1 in January with an average margin of victory of 27.7 points.

“It was such a long month,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw.

Once January ended, it was almost as if everyone at last could exhale and focus more in February knowing that March is closing quickly.

“It was like, ‘Can we just get to the tournament?’” McGraw said. “It was wanting to look ahead and be in the fun part.”

This is the fun part. Being in Purcell Pavilion on Friday morning/afternoon handling NCAA tournament responsibilities instead of being in class. Gearing up for a run that, for the core of this group, will be the last (hopefully) six games they play together. No more league road trips or charter flights (yet) or nights in hotels far from home (yet).

It’s the homestretch now. These next three weeks will go really fast, but also will be really hard. The standard doesn’t hope for Notre Dame to get back to the Final Four. The expectation is that it will. It has to.

“You lose, you go home,” said guard Arike Ogunbowale. “This is what we play for. This is really the last step in our season and we’ve got to give everything we have.”

Give everything now because these Irish are fresh and focused. Following a fifth Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, where Notre Dame beat Louisville by 20, McGraw gave her team a week off. Some players went home. Some went to Florida. They decompressed. They relaxed. But nobody strayed too far from basketball.

First workout on their first day back on campus, McGraw expected to see some rust. Some sloppiness. Instead, it was a whole lot of sharp. It clued her in that this team’s ready for the run that awaits.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” McGraw said. “They had all been in the gym. We had a really good practice.”

Winners of nine straight since last losing Feb. 7, Notre Dame has every look of a team ready to hop the express train to another Final Four. They weathered the regular season. They won a lot of games by a lot of wide margins. They lost a few they shouldn’t have. But all that’s behind them. Why? Easy.

This is postseason. But what does postseason mean? To this program? To these players? To this coach?

“Postseason is all about how your program is perceived nationally,” McGraw said. “It’s all about the respect you get from across the country.”

And what you do the next three weeks that forever will be remembered. Nobody’s going to remember that lackluster December effort against Connecticut. Nobody’s going to remember running off all those wins by double digits. Nobody’s going to remember the two setbacks in regular-season ACC play, a first for the program.

But those memories linger. Offered the Irish just what they needed to be ready for this. All of this.

“It woke us up,” Shepard said. “It was refreshing for us to experience that to get to where we need to be.”

Now all everyone will remember are (hopefully) the next six games over the next three weekends. Here in South Bend with two games in front of the home folks for the last time this season. Then a quick bus trip to Chicago for two more. Win those and it’s another Final Four in another NHL venue, Amalie Arena, in Tampa, Fla.

That’s what everyone will want to remember. Or forget. The real journey, the real work, starts now. For real.

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale looks at her phone between interviews in a locker room during the NCAA Tournament first round media access on Friday, March 22, 2019, at Notre Dame in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s Jordan Nixon, right, drives by Jessica Shepard during the NCAA Tournament first round practice session on Friday, March 22, 2019, at Notre Dame in South Bend.