Notre Dame women overcome loss of Olivia Miles to clinch ACC regular-season championship
On the same day Notre Dame’s whole season may have flashed before its eyes by way of an injury to Olivia Miles, the Irish powered through that staggering visual and rose up to become Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season outright women’s basketball champions.
“This was all God … and Soni Citron,” ND coach Niele Ivey proclaimed with a smile while wrapping her arm around her other deluxe sophomore guard.
Citron scored 17 of her season-high 27 points in the second half as the Irish rallied from a 10-point third-quarter deficit to beat host Louisville 68-65 in Sunday afternoon’s regular-season finale at the KFC Yum! Center.
The win, combined with No. 11 Duke’s 45-41 loss to No. 22 North Carolina, left No. 10 ND (24-4 overall) alone in first place in the final ACC standings at 15-3.
The Irish prevailed despite losing Miles — their sophomore floor general and a top contender for league player of the year — at the 2:35 mark of the second quarter to a right knee injury on a drive toward the basket.
“I’m not sure,” Ivey said of how long Miles will be out. “She’s gonna have to get looked at by our doctors in South Bend, but it’s encouraging that she walked off the court today. So we’re just gonna pray. Prayers up and (we’ll) see what happens in the next couple days.”
Freshmen KK Bransford and Cass Prosper combined for 25 points off the bench for the Irish. Bransford went 7-of-11 from the field for 14, while Prosper netted all of her 11 in the second half, made a pair of steals, blocked a shot and sank a pair of free throws to give ND a 68-63 lead at six seconds left.
Hailey Van Lith led the Cardinals (21-10, 12-6) with 23 points. Fellow junior Merrisah Russell added 12 off the bench.
Louisville is 6-2 over its last eight games — the two losses being Sunday’s and a 78-76 overtime decision at Notre Dame 10 days earlier on Miles’ game-winner at the buzzer.
► Citron & Co. refused to lose despite the distressing sight of Miles being sidelined indefinitely and a double-digit deficit arriving soon after that.
“Coach Ivey talks a lot about when a sister goes down, we all just gotta give a little bit more,” Citron said, “and I mean, when Liv went down, yeah, our hearts broke, but we came together and we still had a whole half to play, so we played for her for the 20 minutes and we weren’t going to lose, so it was for Liv for sure.”
The scene of Miles slumping to the ground on a drive, grabbing at her knee, appearing highly distraught and staying down for several minutes was eerily reminiscent of ND losing guard Dara Mabrey to a season-ending knee injury five weeks earlier against Virginia.
Ultimately, though, Miles was able to head to a training room under her own power.
In the second half, she emerged with her knee wrapped in ice and conferred on a couple occasions with her father while sitting at the far end of the bench.
By the fourth quarter, now sporting a full-leg wrap, she mostly stood while giving her team regular encouragement and direction from the sideline.
“Just an incredible team effort with Olivia going down,” Ivey said. “The way we responded to the adversity, playing a great Louisville team in a packed arena, was just unbelievable.”
ND trailed 26-22 when Miles was injured, then 33-24 by halftime.
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Citron took over the bulk of the point guard duties during the final two quarters, with Bransford and forward Maddy Westbeld also stepping into a by-committee approach.
The visitors’ deficit reached a high of 38-28 at the 8:45 mark of the third period, before the Irish outscored the Cardinals 40-27 the rest of the way.
ND took its first lead since its 15-14 edge through one quarter when Citron converted two free throws for a 54-53 count at 5:30 remaining.
The Irish never relinquished it, and stretched it to as high as 62-56 on Westbeld’s back-cut basket off a pretty Bransford feed at 2:51 showing.
Louisville had a chance to tie the game at 62-62, but Russell’s 3-point try at 1:52 left was barely off the mark.
Four more made free throws by Citron put her streak at 10 straight and gave ND a 66-61 lead at 0:43 to go, before she missed a pair at 0:18 with the Irish up 66-63.
That gave the Cards another chance to knot the score, but Van Lith, who was defended down the stretch by Prosper, airballed a trey at :08.
Prosper rebounded, was fouled and hit the clinching pair.
► Citron, Bransford and Prosper responded with some of their best play all season in Miles’ absence.
“Hats off to Soni,” Ivey said after Citron finished 7-of-13 from the field with a trio of 3-pointers to accompany 10-of-14 at the line. “The fact she could come in, guard their best player (part of the game in Van Lith) and run the point for us for (most of her 39 minutes) was just a testament to the type of player she is. She’s one of the best players in the country, not just the ACC.”
Said Ivey of Bransford, “She’s had to be in the fire all season. She’s played multiple positions, she’s very versatile, so coachable. The team trusts her, I trust her. She came out and had a monster game today.”
Then there’s Prosper, who’s just 17 and not long ago was on track to still be in high school at this time rather than clinching an ACC crown.
Prosper became an early enrollee in December out of Canada and played her first college game Dec. 29.
“Exactly what we needed,” Ivey said. “Now we have two guards down, but she stepped in right away after Christmas and has become such a beautiful addition to our team. She’s selfless, she plays with her heart and she’s super talented, offensively and defensively, and for her to be in that type of moment, to step up, get a defensive stop, get the ball, but also seal the game with her two free throws, just speaks on what type of program changer she is.”
► The Irish captured their first ACC regular-season title since 2019, and their first outright one since 2017.
“ACC champs is just a dream come true,” said Ivey, whose team won’t play again until Friday’s league tourney quarterfinals. “We’re gonna celebrate this for more than two days.”
Under Ivey, ND has made multi-spot jumps in the ACC standings every year.
The Irish finished 8-10 and in ninth place in Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw’s final season in 2020, then went 8-7 to place sixth in Ivey’s pandemic-shortened rookie season and 13-5 to tie for third last season before adding this season’s title.
It’s ND’s 16th regular-season conference crown since 1985 spanning time in the North Star (two titles), Midwestern Collegiate (five), Big East (two) and ACC (seven). Twelve of those championships have been outright.
“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Ivey said of the latest one. “They’re etching their names in the history books, bringing the trophy back home, so I’m super proud of this group.”
As the ACC Tournament’s No. 1 seed, the Irish will play at 2 p.m. Friday in Greensboro, N.C., against Thursday’s survivor between eighth seed North Carolina State (19-10, 9-9) and ninth seed Syracuse (18-11, 9-9).
ND lost 69-65 in its lone meeting against the Wolfpack this season on Jan. 29 and swept the Orange, 72-56 and 73-64.
No. 10 Notre Dame 68, Louisville 65
NOTRE DAME (24-4): Ebo 1-2 0-0 2, Watson 1-3 1-2 3, Westbeld 4-9 0-0 9, Citron 7-13 10-14 27, Miles 1-5 0-0 2, Bransford 7-11 0-1 14, Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Prosper 3-7 5-7 11, Marshall 0-1 0-0 0, Totals 24-51 16-24 68
LOUISVILLE (21-10): Cochran 2-7 6-8 10, Harris 2-4 1-2 5, Konno 1-2 0-0 3, Robinson 2-4 2-2 6, Van Lith 6-21 10-12 23, Dixon 1-6 2-2 4, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Carr 1-3 0-0 2, Jones 0-1 0-0 0, Mobley 0-0 0-0 0, Russell 5-10 0-0 12, Totals 20-58 21-26 65
|Notre Dame||15||9||19||25||— 68|
3-Point Goals—Notre Dame 4-10 (Westbeld 1-2, Citron 3-6, Prosper 0-2), Louisville 4-14 (Konno 1-2, Van Lith 1-6, Carr 0-2, Russell 2-4). Assists—Notre Dame 10 (Westbeld 3), Louisville 14 (Robinson 5). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Notre Dame 32 (Watson 6), Louisville 39 (Robinson 9). Total Fouls—Notre Dame 21, Louisville 18. Technical Fouls—None. A—12,015.