Notre Dame's scenario for NCAA bid is an ACC tourney championship

Anthony Anderson I Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider


The caliber of Notre Dame’s play in its 76-53 women’s college basketball victory Sunday over Miami, and the relief at ending a record five-game home losing streak, left players and coaches alike visibly giddy.

Was it the start, though, of the giddy-up the Irish are going to need the remainder of the way to make a 25th straight NCAA Tournament appearance?

Or, with a 7-12 record overall and a 2-5 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference, is it already too late?

“We gotta win the ACC Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament,” coach Muffet McGraw said flatly after Sunday’s game, referring to what would bring an automatic bid.

McGraw then hedged a bit on that declaration.

“Unless we win the rest of the (regular-season) games,” she added.

Even after Sunday’s win, both scenarios still appear unlikely.

The ACC, after all, is peppered with powers that the Irish have yet to encounter in the regular season, including No. 5 Louisville and No. 14 Florida State. In fact, ND will have to play the Cardinals twice and will get the Seminoles in Tallahassee.

McGraw projected a few weeks ago on the eve of the ACC opener that the Irish would need 18 wins overall to make the NCAA Tourney.

It seemed doable at the time. Notre Dame stood just 5-7, but that had come against a mostly rugged schedule, had come almost entirely without the services of injured center Mikki Vaughn, who was set to return in the next game, and had been capped by a 105-94 loss to now-No. 11 DePaul that brought encouraging signs.

Since then, though, the Irish have posted that 2-5 league record and just last week lost the services of injured guard Anaya Peoples for the rest of the season.

The most likely path to 18 wins at the moment might be a hard-to-imagine 10-1 over the remainder of the ACC regular season, then 1-1 in the ACC Tournament, leaving an 18-14 overall record.

Maybe 17-15 is good enough if Notre Dame goes 9-2 in the highly regarded ACC the rest of the way, or maybe the Irish win twice in the ACC Tourney to get their 18 wins, but given the staggered-bracket format of that event, only the top two seeds will be favored to win more than once.

As for McGraw’s win-the-tourney scenario, unless the Irish are a top-four seed, they’ll need to take either four games in four days or five in five, depending on where they are seeded, to capture the entire event.

That presents a dizzying gauntlet, particularly with ND’s lack of depth.

“We’re just not even thinking about that right now,” McGraw said Sunday of making the NCAA Tournament, addressing it only because she was asked. “We’re thinking about, how can we replicate (Sunday’s performance) in every game? How can we get better every single game?

Even in the Duke game (a 50-47 road loss Thursday that the Irish led most of the way), we were way better than the NC State game, so we’re making progress, and I think when we finally get to that point (of progress every time out), we’ll be ready for the ACC Tournament.”

‘Questionable’ works

For the second time this season heading into Sunday’s game, guard Destinee Walker wasdeemed “questionable” to play by McGraw due to injury.

For the second time, Walker turned in a sparkling outing under those circumstances.

“I’m not sure,” Walker said of the reason for the trend. “Regardless of what’s bothering me, I just wanted to come out and play hard for my team, because I know what they need. I wanted to step up and push through any little nagging injury I may have.”

Added Walker with a grin of being termed questionable, “We might have to keep that little thing going.”

Indeed the Irish might have to, because she’s not the only one.

Four times this season a player has been described as “questionable” by McGraw.

All four times, that player wound up playing, and mostly excelling.

It started with freshman Sam Brunelle, deemed questionable prior to the DePaul game after hurting her knee against Connecticut. Brunelle proceeded to score a career-high 31 points.

Then came Walker listed as questionable going into the Pittsburgh contest due to back spasms.

She didn’t start, but notched 16 points, three steals and made a couple pivotal plays late over 29 minutes during a 60-52 road win.

That was followed by Peoples being declared questionable against Boston College after initially hurting her shoulder at Syracuse. Peoples scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds against the Eagles.

Walker unleashed 21 points on the Hurricanes and hit 4-of-5 outside the arc to go with seven rebounds. She played every bit of the game’s first 38 minutes, 27 seconds.

McGraw, made aware earlier in the week of this season’s trend regarding “questionable” players, smiled as she applied the label to Walker on Saturday.

Hey, it’s worked better than “probable.” Guard Marta Sniezek was deemed that going into the Clemson game, and it turned out to be the one game she’s missed.

Peoples person

Sunday’s win over Miami came in ND’s first game after learning that Peoples is out for the season due to a torn labrum in her right shoulder.

The Irish, though, didn’t flinch minus the guard who was averaging 12.6 points, leading in rebounds at 8.1 and was in some regards their most consistent player.

“That is one more person down, and a very great player for us,” Brunelle said of her fellow freshman.

Brunelle, though, refused to see her friend’s exit from the active roster as strictly a loss — for the team or the player.

“We’re still there with her, we’re fighting with her, and Abby (Prohaska, out for the season due to illness), we’re there for them,” Brunelle said.

“But I think what’s really important,” Brunelle added, “is they are still buying into everything we’re doing. They are being the best encouragers they can be. I know for myself that recently I’ve been trying to do better with confidence, and I think the rest of the team is, too, but I know the encouragement that we get from Anaya and from Abby on the bench, it just helps a lot. They mean so much to the team still”

Notre Dame players, including Abby Prohaska (12), celebrate their win over Louisville in the championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., on March 10, 2019. The Irish would probably have to repeat that feat this year in order to earn an NCAA tournament bid.