Notre Dame women must navigate NCAA Tournament path without All-American G Olivia Miles
SOUTH BEND — Olivia Miles’ Notre Dame teammates expressed sadness that she won’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament, but resolve that they can make a postseason run without their All-American point guard.
“Extremely hard,” fellow sophomore Sonia Citron said Thursday of knowing Miles will not play. “We know it’s hard for her. All we can do is just be there for her every step of the way, but it’s definitely really hard for all of us.”
ND announced Thursday morning on Twitter that Miles is out for the remainder of the season following the right knee injury she suffered 18 days earlier at Louisville.
“She’s been working at rehab every day,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said of Miles, who had been described as “day to day” over much of the last two-plus weeks.
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Ivey said Miles will likely undergo surgery “late next week. We hope that she’ll be back for the summer in order to participate in workouts.”
The coach declined to share the specific nature of Miles’ injury.
Third-seeded and No. 10-ranked host ND (25-5) faces 14th seed Southern Utah (23-9) in a first-round game at 3:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN2.
“Obviously, we love Liv, and I’ve been so thankful to play with her, (but) there’s not much we can do,” grad center Lauren Ebo said of Miles being out. “Praying for her and her health, but I’m super thankful that we still get to be her teammate and she gets to cheer us on from the sideline.”
“It’s super heartbreaking,” freshman guard KK Bransford said of Miles’ absence from the court. “I think the most important thing right now is (supporting her).”
Miles was not made available to the media Thursday, but Ebo shared that her teammate’s “spirits have been high” in light of the circumstance.
“She’s a very positive teammate,” Ebo said. “You wouldn’t even be able to tell with her.”
Miles was named a second-team All-American by the Associated Press on Wednesday and was runner-up this season for Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year honors. She’s also one of four finalists for the Dawn Staley Award that goes to the nation’s top guard.
She sustained her injury with 2:35 to go in the second quarter at Louisville.
The Irish trailed 26-22 at the time and saw their deficit swell to 38-28 at 8:45 remaining in the third quarter before rallying for a win that earned them the ACC regular-season title outright at 15-3.
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Citron scored 17 of her game-high 27 points in the second half of that win, then followed up with a season-high 28 as ND knocked off North Carolina State 66-60 on March 3 in the ACC Tourney quarterfinals.
The Irish, though, were whipped 64-38 by Louisville in the semifinals the next day, by far their most lopsided loss of the season, with the Cardinals’ pressure defense proving problematic.
Minus Miles, Notre Dame turned the ball over 41 times at the ACC Tourney, its most over any back-to-back games this season, and the 22 against Louisville matched the team’s most in any of its last 26 games.
“Just taking care of the ball,” Ivey said of what’s been her team’s main focus in practice without Miles. “I think half-court execution is something that we’ve worked on a lot, putting my guards in scenarios that before they didn’t have to make decisions in. … I’ve kind of adjusted the offense a little bit. We’ve worked on a ton of screening action, shooting action, a lot of fundamental stuff.”
Without Miles, the bulk of the point guard duties fall to Citron.
“I’m still gonna play my game and be who I am as a player,” Citron said. “I’m not gonna change that, but some aspects do change. Being a point guard is a lot different than being the two or three.”
Ebo, by far ND’s most tournament-tested player after Elite Eight runs with Texas each of the last two years, expressed confidence in Citron’s ability to step up.
“She’s a silent assassin,” Ebo said with a grin of Citron. “She’s one of the best players I’ve played with. I’ve played with amazing players, but Sonia is amazing. She might not be the loudest on the court, but she’s a great player and I’m excited to see her shine in this tournament.”
Citron is Notre Dame’s top scorer on the season at 14.7 points per game and has drained a team-pacing 47-of-107 on 3-pointers for 44%.
Miles was right behind Citron in scoring at 14.3, and was leading the Irish in rebounding (7.3), assists (6.9) and steals (2.1).
“We are going to be ready regardless,” Citron said of the Irish forging forward, “because we’ve been getting ready, practicing for this (scenario).”
“Our coaches have done a tremendous job thus far of just preparing us for anything we have coming,” junior forward Maddy Westbeld concurred. “I think that’s just going to continue to go forward. It’s been a really good week of practice getting used to what the court is looking like without Olivia. I’m excited.”
The winner of the ND-Southern Utah matchup plays Sunday at Purcell Pavilion, time to be announced, against the survivor of sixth seed Creighton (22-8) vs. No. 11 seed Mississippi State (21-10. The Bluejays and Bulldogs meet at approximately 6 p.m. Friday.
T-Birds and T-overs
As the Irish shift to postseason life sans Miles — particularly in the area of ball-handling — at least they do so with perhaps an ideal first opponent to help ease the transition in one regard.
Per HerHoopStats.com, which excludes non-Division I matchups, Southern Utah ranks dead last in the nation among 361 teams in rate of turnovers by opponents at 13.2%. Similarly, the Thunderbirds are just 360th in opponent turnovers per game at 11.1.
Southern’s also averaging 17.2 turnovers of its own per contest, ranking 267th in the country.
ND, even with the benefit of Miles until the last two-plus games, enters Friday at 15.6 turnovers per outing, slightly better than middle of the pack at 171st.
Meanwhile, though the Irish do not turn opponents over often enough to crack the top 200 (202nd in rate per game and 223rd in rate per possession), that hasn’t much hurt more telling, tempo-free, bottom-line numbers.
Specifically, ND ranks 19th in the nation in fewest points allowed per opponent possession, and to go with it, the Irish offense is 31st in points per possession.
The Thunderbirds, who are likewise outperforming turnover-related issues, stand 185th defensively and 143rd offensively in the PPP categories.
Looking to pad on St. Patrick's Day
The Irish will play on St. Patrick’s Day for the first time in six years.
Furthermore, extending a tradition that was born on a St. Patrick’s Day, most, if not all, the players are expected to sport green-painted fingernails.
“Hopefully, the luck is on our side,” Ivey said of ND drawing its latest St. Patrick’s Day assignment while confirming that the green-nail look is again planned.
The Irish are 4-2 all-time on St. Patrick’s Day — including 3-0 at home — with all six contests being NCAA Tourney first or second-round games.
The initial St. Patrick’s win, and second St. Pat's appearance, in 1997, was also the debut of the green nails, a fashion suggestion made by then-junior guard Mollie Peirick.
ND, as a No. 6 seed, proceeded to knock off third-seeded host Texas 86-83 in the second round, take down second-seeded Alabama 87-71 in the Sweet 16 and eliminate fifth seed George Washington 62-52 in the Elite Eight to advance to its first-ever Final Four.
Green nails, with varying levels of participation, have been an Irish postseason staple ever since.
ND beat Robert Morris 79-49 in 2017 in its last St. Patrick’s appearance.
It was Notre Dame’s first St. Patty game in 15 years, after playing on March 17 three straight years from 2000 to 2002.
NCAA Women's basketball Tournament Schedule
At Notre Dame's Joyce Center, South Bend, Ind.
7 p.m.: No. 11 Mississippi State 70, No. 11 Illinois 56
3:30 p.m.: No. 14 Southern Utah (23-9) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (25-5)
6 p.m.: No. 6 Crieghton (22-8) vs. No. 11 Mississippi State (21-10)
TBD: Friday winners (Second round game times will be announced after all first-round games conclude)