Irish find St. Patrick's Day gold in NCAA opener with throttling of Southern Utah

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — As Lauren Ebo lounged on a locker room couch a day earlier, she shared what she most wanted out of herself and her Notre Dame teammates in Friday’s NCAA Tournament first-round game against Southern Utah.

“You’ve got to punch first,” the ND center said, adding a dash of panache to her words by swinging a fist into the air. “I just think punching first is so important, coming out strong and punching first and playing with confidence.”

Even Ebo couldn’t have envisioned more of a rapid knockout flurry than the one the Irish unleashed upon the Thunderbirds at Purcell Pavilion.

Tom Noie:Wrong place, wrong time for Southern Utah as Notre Dame returns to its winning ways in NCAA

Notre Dame roared to the first 16 points of the game, tallied on 10 of its first 11 possessions and owned a 24-5 lead by just over seven minutes into the contest while cruising past the Thunderbirds 82-56.

Maddy Westbeld scored 15 of her game-high 20 points in the first half and dished five assists for the hosts.

Notre Dame's Maddy Westbeld (21) shoots as Southern Utah's Lizzy Williamson (15) defends during the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

Ebo added 14 points and matched freshman teammate Cass Prosper’s 10 rebounds for game-high honors.

Sonia Citron — now heading up point guard duties with All-American Olivia Miles out for the season — netted 14 points to accompany her game highs of six assists and three steals.

Kylee Watson scored 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting from the field.

Recap:That's a wrap as No. 3 Notre Dame eliminates No. 14 Southern Utah in NCAA opener

“Just ecstatic about this win,” third-year Irish coach Niele Ivey said after ND’s first NCAA Tourney home game in four years. “It was such a dominant performance. This was one of my dreams, to have an opportunity to host, and (we took) advantage of that opportunity. I thought the crowd was amazing and I’m just really proud of my team, proud of the way we came out.”

The Irish (26-5) advanced to Sunday’s second round at home against 11th-seeded Mississippi State (22-10) at 3:30 p.m. (ESPN, WQLQ 99.9 FM). The Bulldogs were 81-66 winners over sixth seed Creighton (22-9) in Friday’s nightcap at Purcell.

Senior center Megan Jensen led Southern Utah (23-10) with 11 points.

The Thunderbirds were making their first-ever NCAA Tourney appearance as well as facing ND for the first time.

“You could tell there were a little bit of nerves,” Southern coach Tracy Sanders said. “We weren’t hitting shots and they were pushing the ball pretty quickly (from the start).”

Top storylines

Notre Dame's Lauren Ebo goes up for a shot during the Southern Utah-Notre Dame NCAA Women’s Tournament First Round basketball game on Friday, March 17, 2023, at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.

► Led by Ebo, with Watson and Westbeld among others making their interior presence felt, ND overwhelmed Southern inside.

The Irish finished with advantages of 50-18 in paint points, 14-4 in second-chance points and 53-25 in rebounds.

ND’s 21 offensive boards were just four fewer than the Thunderbirds’ overall count.

“Nothing like No. 33,” Jensen said, alluding to Ebo, when asked whether Southern had previously encountered a team as imposing inside as the Irish.

Ebo arrived at ND for her fifth and final collegiate season on the heels of back-to-back Elite Eight appearances at Texas.

“She’s been a part of incredible runs with Texas, and I’ve (told) her, ‘We really need your voice, your leadership, your experience in the locker room, kind of explaining what to expect being a part of the NCAA,’” Ivey said of Ebo.

“I’ve really relied on her leadership this year, and especially right now, and I thought she did a great job (against Southern),” Ivey said. “We scored 50 points in the paint and it kind of shows her dominance. She has a strong personality, and (teammates) really look to her. When she’s playing this way and affecting the game the way she does in a positive way, it’s awesome.”

► Citron, albeit not against a club known for applying effective pressure, looked calm and confident in her still fairly new role of steering the Irish offense.

It was Citron’s first outing since ND announced a day earlier that Miles is out for the season with the knee injury she suffered Feb. 26, but also her third since Miles last played.

“We sat aside yesterday,” Ivey said of Citron, “gave her the plan, like ‘this is exactly what I want you to run.’ The fact that she can turn to that position, something she’s never done before, is just remarkable. It just shows you who she is as a player. She can receive information and she translates it right away. I thought she did an incredible job of pushing pace.”

All the Irish did well in that regard when called upon, and well in the half-court.

It helped lead to ND racking up 24 assists to match a season high, while committing 10 turnovers, two off a season low.

“Playing the right way for me is being unselfish and finding the open player,” Ivey said. “Teams are going to do a lot of different things against us, sometimes double-team. So being aware of that and finding the mismatches, playing unselfish … I thought we did a great job of that today.”

► While the offense was as dominating as it needed to be for as long as it needed to be — helping the Irish to a 70-42 lead through three quarters — the defense posted solid numbers as well.

The Thunderbirds shot just 36% from the field, while ND made eight steals, helping lead to a 13-4 edge in fast-break points.

“It started on defense,” Westbeld said. “That’s what (Ivey’s) been emphasizing, just getting on a running transition, getting stops early, getting rebounding and running. We did a really good job at the beginning and that’s what set the tone early.”

Worth noting

Notre Dame's KK Bransford drives to the basket as Southern Utah's Cherita Daugherty defends during the Southern Utah-Notre Dame NCAA Women’s Tournament First Round basketball game on Friday, March 17, 2023, at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.

► ND’s two freshmen played big in their first taste of Big Dancing.

KK Bransford contributed nine points, eight rebounds and a career-high five assists, while Prosper’s 10 rebounds were also a career high to go with six points.

► Jenna Brown, now the second point guard with Miles out, contributed five points and five rebounds in 18 minutes while committing just one turnover.

► The Irish improved to 4-0 all-time at home on St. Patrick’s Day, each of those games being NCAA Tourney first or second-round contests.

Notre Dame 82, S. Utah 56S. UTAH (23-10): Jensen 5-9 1-2 11, Williamson 2-6 1-2 5, Ballena 2-9 1-1 6, Daugherty 3-7 2-3 8, Whitman 4-16 1-2 9, Banks 0-0 0-0 0, Johnston 3-7 1-2 9, Lord 1-2 1-2 4, Tronnier 0-0 4-6 4, Totals 20-56 12-20 56NOTRE DAME (26-5): Ebo 6-10 2-3 14, Watson 6-6 0-0 12, Westbeld 9-17 1-2 20, Bransford 3-7 3-5 9, Citron 6-15 1-2 14, Brown 2-5 0-0 5, Prosper 3-10 0-0 6, Cernugel 0-2 0-0 0, Marshall 1-2 0-0 2, Totals 36-74 7-12 82

S. Utah10141814— 56
Notre Dame27162712— 82

3-Point Goals_S. Utah 4-13 (Jensen 0-1, Ballena 1-3, Whitman 0-3, Johnston 2-5, Lord 1-1), Notre Dame 3-14 (Westbeld 1-4, Citron 1-6, Brown 1-1, Prosper 0-2, Cernugel 0-1). Assists_S. Utah 10 (Johnston 5), Notre Dame 24 (Citron 6). Fouled Out_Notre Dame Bransford, Watson. Rebounds_S. Utah 25 (Williamson 7), Notre Dame 53 (Ebo 10, Prosper 10). Total Fouls_S. Utah 10, Notre Dame 22. Technical Fouls_None. A_0.