Notre Dame's Niele Ivey to use NCAA women's tourney absence as motivation going forward

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Niele Ivey intends to soak up every drop of freshman son Jaden’s participation in the NCAA Tournament for Purdue in person. She also intends to make sure an opportunity like this never happens again.

The first-year Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach was heading to Indianapolis for the Boilermakers’ opening-round men’s game Friday night, with plans to be in attendance for however long the Boilers last in postseason beyond that.

She’s only able to be on hand from the start, though, because ND’s streak of women’s NCAA Tourney appearances came to a halt at 24 when the Irish were not selected Monday.

That omission “for the rest of my career is always going to be motivation to get into the tournament,” Ivey said Thursday during a Zoom news conference to wrap up the season.

“That’s our expectation here at Notre Dame,” Ivey said of making the field.

It’s easy to see how she came to acquire that expectation. Ivey made the tourney all five seasons she was an ND player, then all 11 as an ND assistant coach.

After a 10-10 record this winter, though, the Irish were squarely on the so-called bubble, one that burst Monday with word that they wound up three spots from making it in, per the selection committee’s “first four out” reveal.

A case can be made that ND should’ve been in.

Eight Atlantic Coast Conference teams did qualify — all of the five ahead of the Irish in the standings and all of the three right behind. Notre Dame even went 3-1 against those latter three, along with 2-4 against the top five, two of the losses coming to champion Louisville.

However, a regular-season split with 13th-place Boston College coupled with an ACC Tourney loss to 11th-seeded Clemson to leave ND 0-2 against the Tigers presumably did the Irish in.

“I can’t really question the (committee’s) decision,” Ivey said.

Instead, she prefers to take steps that will leave the Irish out of being in the tossup category again.

“It’s hard not to feel like you’re in control of your own destiny,” Ivey said. “That’s something I always want to do, be in control … I just want to make sure for the future that I do my due diligence to make sure we are in control of our own destiny.”

Much conspired against that happening in 2020-21, specifically including a first-year head coach coming aboard in the middle of a pandemic and not having a traditional offseason to install her system.

Further, Ivey inherited a still relatively young roster that included six newcomers, five of them freshmen, on the heels of Notre Dame going 13-18 the season before. Then she maneuvered through four veterans missing from three to 11 games apiece due to injuries or personal reasons.

“The summer is where you get to grow as a team,” Ivey said, “the camaraderie, the chemistry on the court, playing pick-up, just playing. We didn’t get an opportunity to do that. I started the season with six, seven (healthy) players, added players throughout the season, added an early enrollee (Olivia Miles in mid-January), so the chemistry is going to be huge.”

Whether Notre Dame returns to having a traditional offseason in 2021 is hardly assured, either, though the coach is optimistic.

“The administration has not 100% confirmed it yet,” Ivey said, “but I’ve heard great reports that we will be able to come back this summer, and I think it’s going to be crucial for year two for me.”

Year two will come without Mikki Vaughn. As the senior starting center hinted at over the last few weeks, she’s decided to end her Notre Dame career and pursue playing professionally, per Ivey, even though she has up to two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Vaughn (7.6 points, 5.4 rebounds) joins grad student Destinee Walker (11.4 points) as possibly the lone departures among ND’s rotation regulars this past season.

The anticipated returnees include, but are not limited to, ACC Freshman of the Year Maddy Westbeld (15.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Dara Mabrey (11.3 ppg, 3.2 assists, 40-of-104 on 3s), Miles (9.3 ppg, 3.5 assists in 22.7 minutes across six games), Anaya Peoples (9.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Sam Brunelle (8.7 ppg, 23-of-60 on 3s), Abby Prohaska (4.2 ppg) and Katlyn Gilbert (3.8), a former ACC all-freshman player who missed 11 games, most due to a foot injury.

Further, the Irish will welcome Sonia Citron, ranked No. 16 by ESPN in the high school class of 2021, and Maya Dodson, a grad-student transfer from Stanford.

Ivey says Dodson and Nat Marshall, a highly ranked freshman who missed all of this season while recovering from an ACL injury, “will change everything” on the interior for ND. She also describes the versatile Citron as “very similar” to ex-Irish standout Jackie Young.

NIT nixed

Ivey shared that it was her decision not to have Notre Dame accept a virtually certain bid from the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, a 32-team field that includes Houston and DePaul, the top two teams in the NCAA’s “first four out” mix.

“With injuries, I just felt like it wasn’t something that I wanted to participate in for many reasons,” Ivey said, “but injuries and health was the (main) reason.”

The Irish likely would’ve been sent to a regional in Rockford, Ill., and been guaranteed at least two games based on the event having a consolation bracket.

Ivey did not specify any players definitely being out if ND had competed in the WNIT, but Prohaska, usually a starter, did miss the last four games, while at least a couple others will be undergoing offseason tests to check on assorted pains.

A son's support

The tight bond between Niele Ivey and Jaden Ivey has been well-documented, but this season there was a reversed-role aspect to it as well, with Jaden emerging from early-season struggles to become one of the Big Ten’s premier freshmen, while Niele navigated a series of disheartening defeats that included losing large leads late.

“He was my rock,” Niele said, repeating the same description that Jaden has shared about his mom.

“We have our morning texts of just words of encouragement every day,” Niele said. “It’s almost like he’s grown up so much and been so mature that I really leaned on his words of inspiration, which just shows our bond and how mature he is. He honestly gave me a lot of strength and power and love through just knowing that he’s there for me, unconditionally there for me.”

Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey claps on the baseline during a game against Virginia Tech Dec. 17, 2020, in South Bend, Ind. The first-year Notre Dame coach said Thursday that not making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 24 years, will serve as motivation moving forward.
Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey talks to Olivia Miles (25) during the regular-season finale against Louisville Feb. 28 at the Purcell Pavilion. Ivey said Thursday that missing the NCAA Tournament this year will serve as motivation.