Noie: Notre Dame women stay steady, ready as tourney stakes increase

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO — When on the road in whatever city to do what they do, it’s a routine thing for members of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.

For junior guard Jackie Young, that means crawling back into bed at some point for a nap. Gotta do it. Clear any clutter from her mind and just be there. One time, it was so serene that she slept for nearly three hours.

For sophomore center Mikayla Vaughn, her routine is not having one. She likes to change everything up. If she does something one way on one road trip, she’ll do it the opposite way the next. That keeps it fresh. Vaughn changed it up again late last week here while carving out time to study for Tuesday’s test in her French class.

For other Irish, it might be getting their ankles taped a certain way or rooming with the same teammates, keeping everything as normal as possible so nothing ever seems too off.

It’s all routine.

That goes for the way the Irish (33-3) play. Now away from home in a high-stakes sprint through the NCAA tournament, each game is a little bigger than the last. The opponents are tougher, better, sometimes just as driven to win. Any game might be the last for this Notre Dame group which rolls into Monday’s regional championship game at Wintrust Arena (9 p.m., ESPN2) against No. 2 seed Stanford (31-4) having won 12 straight and 26 of its last 28.

Notre Dame’s made it look simple, look routine. Even Saturday, even when No. 4 Texas A&M carried the confidence of a team that was ready to hand Notre Dame its first loss since early February. An upset seemingly was percolating. The stress levels were rising in the stands. On the Irish bench. Out on the floor. Hey, look, some serious drama in a tournament that’s really had little of it.

Not really. As the game got deeper and the pressure seemed to build, Notre Dame did what it does. When the Irish do that, few teams can follow. Texas A&M was the latest. Good, but not good enough.

Even this far into the season, Notre Dame learned something about itself, something it will carry into Monday. Let the opposition do what it does, sometimes at a really high level. If the Irish keep doing what they do, there might not be a team in the country that’s better.

In the end, the Irish are just too good, too talented, too focused to not win.

“We stay calm and play our game,” said Young, one of the calmest in the country when calm is required. “If we get down, we just fight back. Just go out there, not get too rattled.

“It’s all about playing our game.”

And playing the game. All 40 minutes of it, something Notre Dame had to do Saturday for the first time in a long time. Texas A&M was a handful all afternoon. The score was tied at 42 at halftime. Heading off the floor, Aggies sophomore guard Chennedy Carter made it a point to point to the scoreboard as if to tell the fans in the stands, ‘Look, we got ‘em right where we want ‘em.’’’

Irish guard Marina Mabrey didn’t see Carter point to the scoreboard. If she did, Mabrey may have shown Carter even more of the New Jersey in her than she did.

The Irish then scored the first eight points of the third quarter. The spurt gave them some confidence, restored some swagger. Saturday was an emotional game, a physical game, a game that could have gone the other way. But this Irish outfit just wouldn’t let it.

“We’re never going to stay down,” Mabrey said. “Nobody’s going to keep us down the whole game.”

Despite the Irish rolling through the first two tournament rounds with home wins by an average of 35 points, Mabrey knew tough stuff would surface before the Irish boarded their charter bus and headed west. Saturday was hard. Monday, one final step before the Final Four, might be harder.

It’s just the way it is. Has been all year. Saturday was the first time the Irish had won a game all year by single digits. Too close for comfort? Sure, but close doesn’t count.

“It was going to happen,” Mabrey said. “We weren’t going to just run through this tournament. We get everybody’s best shot.”

Will Stanford’s best be good enough to keep Notre Dame from its ninth trip to the Final Four? The Cardinal have a quality team, a Hall of Fame coach in Tara VanDerveer and one freaky mascot — there’s someone dressed as a deranged Christmas tree dancing in the corner — but maybe not enough options to slow the Irish.

They don’t have the inside size to deal with the tag-team of Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner. They don’t have the backcourt experience to stay with Mabrey and Young and Arike Ogunbowale. Who does?

Stanford averages 74.3 points per game — 15 fewer than Notre Dame. In Saturday’s win over Missouri State, Stanford didn’t get out of the 30s until the closing seconds of the third quarter. Notre Dame has averaged 94.5 points over its 12-game win streak. Stanford has hit for at least 95 only three times this season, the last in mid-December. Its games often are a grind. The Cardinal haven’t allowed an opponent to score at least 70 in 12 straight games.

High-powered Notre Dame isn’t any opponent.

If the Irish play with the poise and purpose they showed Saturday, Monday won’t be so manic.

They’ll make it look, wait for it, routine.

With an explosive offense and veteran starting lineup, Notre Dame has won 12 in a row heading into Monday’s regional championship game against Stanford.