Wrong place, wrong time for Southern Utah as Notre Dame returns to its winning ways in NCAA
SOUTH BEND — In this month about the madness of buzzer-beaters, about the heartbreak of wild swings in win-or-go-home moments, Friday’s first-round NCAA tournament game for No. 3 seed Notre Dame featured absolutely none of that.
It was over early for overmatched Southern Utah, and that’s fine. A blowout was exactly what Notre Dame needed to open postseason. An easy one where everyone plays well and there’s a lot of smiles and shiny stats and pride to ease into what they hope is an extended month of answering challenges.
This challenge really wasn’t one in an 82-56 Irish win.
Game recap:That's a wrap as No. 3 Notre Dame eliminates No. 14 Southern Utah in NCAA opener
“It was a such a dominant performance,” said Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey, who fulfilled a dream Friday coaching an NCAA tournament game at Purcell Pavilion. “I’m just really proud of my team. We came out with a dominant mindset.”
A mindset to end this one after the first 10 minutes. Notre Dame scored the first 16 points in the game, and the game was over. Tone set.
Playing without its starting guards — Dara Mabrey and Olivia Miles both were on the bench in street clothes with season-ending knee injuries — Notre Dame (26-5) made efficient and easy work of Southern Utah. The Irish will miss Mabrey and Miles soon enough. Maybe as soon as Sunday against No. 11 seed Mississippi State (remember them?) (3:30 p.m., ESPN). Not Friday, when no luck of the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day was needed.
No Mabrey. No Miles. No problem.
One team Friday carried itself as a veteran of NCAA tournament games. Of long/winning runs and high seeds. Of playing with the pressure that comes with postseason. The other was making its first-ever appearance. It showed. At least the Southern Utah band (we see you, horns section) came to play. They responded like a No. 1 seed. The basketball team looked and played like a 14 seed.
Postseason is supposed to be a time of the year in college basketball when good teams — ranked team, highly-seeded teams — are hitting their stride. Notre Dame isn’t one of them. Not yet. Without Mabrey or Miles, it can’t be. It has to start over.
“This,” Ivey said, “is a different team.”
That’s why Friday was so needed. Notre Dame tied its season high for assists with 24, including three players with at least five. That’s always good with your All-American point guard watching. The Irish had 11 assists on their first 13 baskets in the first quarter. They limited turnovers. They got stops. They rebounded. They got out and ran. They played from the start like a No. 3 seed should play at home.
“That set the tone early,” said Maddy Westbeld, who scored a game-high 20 points.
Three seeds throw the first punch and not let an overmatched team get confident. The Irish threw the first and the second and the third and by then, the Thunderbirds were completely staggered.
“We had to come out strong,” said forward Lauren Ebo. “Coach Ivey made that an emphasis. I’m glad we were able to translate that from practice.”
A day earlier, when news broke of Miles’ season-ending right knee injury (the extent of which remains undisclosed), Westbeld insisted that Miles or no Miles, these Irish were ready to get back on the floor for the first time since a March 4 loss to Louisville in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game.
Westbeld sure was. At one point in the opening 20 minutes, she’d outscored the Thunderbirds by herself. She went by a game-high 15 points on 7-of-9 from the floor in the opening half. She made the game look easy. Get the ball. Get to the basket. Put the ball in the basket. She had a look that she wasn’t going to be stopped. She seldom was.
This one tipped at 3:37 p.m. local time. It was over before the top of the hour. That ACC semifinal game seemed a distant memory. A totally different team than the one we watched Friday.
Speaking of that day against the ‘Ville in Greensboro, North Carolina, Notre Dame trailed at one point by as many as 34 points and staggered to a total of 38. A Sonia Citron layup with 6:41 remaining in the first half Friday nudged Notre Dame to 39 points. Yeah, it was that easy. Southern Utah didn’t get past 38 until 92 seconds remained in the third quarter. By then, the Irish were up 27.
The Irish never trailed, were never threatened, never seemingly broke so much as a sweat. Notre Dame didn’t get into its largest margin of victory in an NCAA tournament game territory (51 points vs Robert Morris in 2014) range, but didn’t need to. This was a step in the dominant direction. Last year, Notre Dame won its first-round game by all of 11 points.
“Totally different team,” Ivey said.
This team isn’t as complete, but this first-round effort was. Notre Dame led by as many as 33. It scored 50 points in the paint. It was as dominant as dominant gets.
Friday’s post-season cruise felt more like an early November non-conference game. In a way, it was. Postseason is a new season for Notre Dame. Without Mabrey and Miles, these Irish need to reinvent themselves. They still have Citron and they still have Westbeld and they still have Ebo carving out space in the post, albeit on a minutes restriction. They had enough Friday to shoot it, to share it, to score it.
It will get tougher as Notre Dame moves forward. Can the Irish answer that challenge, and any others that might follow? There’s no other choice. This is their team. This is their chance.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.