A day of high-level hoops between two Top-10 teams saw Notre Dame deliver
SOUTH BEND — They emptied the arsenal to keep the arena energy at an off-the-chart level Sunday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion.
Former Notre Dame women’s basketball players seated along the west baseline. A pre-game video that documents the program’s deep history of success (Arike Ogunbowale’s buzzer-beater to win the 2018 natty still brings chills) The two-time national champion and Hall of Fame head coach (hello, Muffet McGraw), who looked like she wanted to be anywhere but there, introduced at one timeout. Hype music stacked atop hype music to ensure that no one felt the need to nod off. Or leave early.
Everything and anything to make sure there was plenty of juice in the building against an opponent — No. 3 and undefeated Connecticut in the Jimmy V. Classic — that demanded everyone’s attention.
Turns out all No. 7 Notre Dame (7-1) needed in this one was a certain sophomore point guard who wears black prescription glasses and can work some wizardry with the basketball in her hands like few in the country can.
Notre Dame 74, Connecticut 60.
The Irish rocked and the old building rolled because the home team had sophomore guard Olivia Miles, and the other team didn’t. Best player on the floor, sure, but on this day, maybe one of the elite in the nation. Give her the ball, give her a runway to work and enjoy the show. She’s got this.
Sunday’s show from Miles included 21 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals in 35 masterful minutes.
“The focus of this game was just to be aggressive, play my game,” Miles said. “I just stuck to what I do well. I did that today. I feel that’s why I was successful.”
Miles put her own exclamation point on this one early in the fourth quarter. She grabbed a defensive rebound with her right hand, and smacked/secured the ball with her left (thwack!). She turned and immediately put it into high gear up the left side of the floor. The other four Irish spread out, but Miles saw only the rim.
There she got with 94 feet covered in a burst of dribbles and determination, all the way in for another layup that pushed the Irish advantage to 16. Along the Connecticut sideline, head coach Geno Auriemma, his hands stuffed in his pockets, stared down at the blue sideline and just paced. Not today, he likely thought.
Auriemma had preached all pre-game that Huskies not allow Miles to drive right. First five baskets she made by driving right.
“It should’ve been, make her go left,” Auriemma said. “She senses the tempo of a game. She kind of dictates where she wants the ball to go. Good guards do that. She played exceptionally well.”
She’s good, but also thankful. For the opportunity to play this game. For the chance to play the way she does. For games like Sunday. After listening post-game to Irish head coach Niele Ivey praise her work, Miles offered two words in response.
Irish had to have this one
Watching the 5-foot-10 Miles about 35 minutes before the game offered no clue that she was going to bring it from the start and just keep bringing it. There she sat, alone with her thoughts on the Irish bench during the back end of warmups. One Irish fan wearing green had the nerve to wander over and ask for a selfie (Miles obliged) before she raced back to the court to continue her routine.
Then the game started, and Miles took everything to another level, one that the sellout crowd of 9,149 loved, but that the Huskies loathed. There’s a ton of talent over there on that visitor’s bench, but nobody quite like Miles.
First two buckets of the day for the Irish featured Miles taking the ball from one end of the floor to the other and a layup. Then another. Ten minutes in, Miles had taken seven shots and made six. She had 13 points, nine off her season high. She dribbled. She shot. She scored. She starred.
It calmed everyone Irish down. Like, they were going to get it done on this night. They just were.
“She’s unstoppable off the dribble,” Irish forward Maddy Westbeld said of Miles. “Nobody can guard her, especially when she’s that aggressive coming out in the game. It really just opens up the rest of the floor.”
Miles was more than a one-player break. She also found teammates. Like the time she again took off from one end of the floor to the other and weaved her way through the lane. High above the arena, you could see what Miles saw — fellow guard Dara Mabrey camped and open in the corner in front of the UConn bench. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Miles prowled through the paint, then found Mabrey for another crowd-pleasing play. Boom. A 3. Notre Dame’s lead swelled to double digits before halftime, and was at 17 at the break. Who needed one? How about the Irish just keep playing with all that poise and passion?
By the time halftime arrived, it was time to start researching the record for the most lopsided Notre Dame win in a series that dates back to 1996. For the record, it’s 16 (Jan. 15, 2001). Notre Dame’s lead ballooned to 18 (44-26) with 9:29 left in the third quarter. Barely four minutes later, it was down to eight.
It got to five — nervous anyone? —before Notre Dame collectively put its foot down and said enough is enough, A Miles bucket pushed it back to nine and when Westbeld converted in close, it was 11. By quarter’s end, it was back to 12. Crisis averted. Party continued.
Coming off Thursday’s loss to No. 20 Maryland, Notre Dame was backed into a corner it seldom had been in. Never before in program history had it lost consecutive home games as a Top 10 team. Thanks to Miles and an inspired Irish afternoon, they still haven’t.
Just how good can this Notre Dame team be? March-worthy? Heck, yes. Sunday showed us. A spot this week in the top five beckons. So does a season with a lot of wins. The Irish won their first six games by an average of 29.1 points. They weren’t challenged. First time they were this year — Thursday — they lost. Sunday, they soared.
“If we can play that way,” Ivey said, “we can beat anybody in the country.”
Sunday was everything women’s college basketball needs/demands this time of year, when football reigns and everyone is more concerned with holiday shopping lists than marquee matchups. Two Top-10 teams, a full house, plenty of energy and enthusiasm. High-level execution.
“This is something I’ve always dreamed of,” Ivey said. “The reason I came back to coach this amazing group and to represent for the University of Notre Dame, to be in games like this. I knew it was going to be an incredible matchup. It was just a really fun game.”
This one didn’t disappoint. Neither did Miles.
“It’s kind of scary when we play really well,” Miles said.
Afterward, when the arena had gone quiet and the Huskies had gone home, Miles walked out of the main floor alone, backpack over her shoulders, jacket at her side, phone in her hands.
Like she had done earlier that day, Miles knew exactly where she was going, and how to get there.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.