Analysis: Another postseason matchup vs. Mississippi State, another Notre Dame win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Up a steep set of back stairs in Purcell Pavilion she climbed, after all those minutes, after that effort, there remained a little more to offer from Notre Dame graduate student forward Lauren Ebo. 

Once at the top of the stairs, she took a quick right, then a left to a holding area that eventually would deliver her through a wooden door to the post-game dais following her record setting performance. First, before she could talk and giggle and giggle and talk, Ebo had to wait for the other team to finish their pick-up-the-pieces presser. 

Five minutes passed. Then 10. Close to 15. Nowhere to go. Just, there. 

Game recap:No. 3 Notre Dame holds off No. 11 Mississippi State, advances to NCAA Sweet 16

The wait allowed Ebo to ease her tired body into a blue and gold chair. It might’ve been the longest she’d sat down all day, one that saw her score 10 points, grab an NCAA tournament record 18 rebounds, block five shots and play 30-plus minutes as No. 3 seed Notre Dame (27-8) advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 53-48 victory over No. 11 Mississippi State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. 

Having spent all of spring break in the snow and cold of campus, Notre Dame gets a weekend trip to (hopefully) sunny Greenville, South Carolina for the Sweet 16. Waiting will be No. 2 seed Maryland (27-6), which beat Notre Dame in Purcell Pavilion earlier this season. 

Notre Dame's Lauren Ebo grabs the rebound as Mississippi State's Jessika Carter defends during the Mississippi State-Notre Dame NCAA Women’s Tournament Second Round basketball game on Sunday, March 19, 2023, at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.

“I’m almost lost for words,” said Irish coach Niele Ivey. “This is beyond a dream come true. The resilience of this team, the toughness of this team is unbelievable. 

“Not a lot of people thought we’d be up here headed to the Sweet 16.” 

Ebo did. Those 30 minutes were the most that she had played since logging 33 on Jan. 19 at Clemson. That seems like another season ago. Back when Notre Dame was rolling and still hadn’t lost guards Dara Mabrey and Olivia Miles to season-ending knee injuries. Ebo herself has battled through her share of hurts, evident by her lower right leg in a dark walking boot after Sunday’s game. 

Three days prior, Ebo admitted that she still remained on a minutes restriction. What it was, she couldn’t say. Those guardrails were seemingly removed Sunday. Time to turn it all loose. Less time on the bench, more time on the floor where she scored and rebounded and set screens to free teammates for drives and set a tone. In a game of toughness, she was the toughest. 

Ebo figured she would feel every one of those 30 minutes later Sunday. In a way, she already was feeling them. She was sore. She was tired. But, man, she also was really happy. 

“I’m hurting a little bit,” Ebo said. “I’m just going to go home, eat some nice dinner and go to class (Monday).” 

How’s that as a reward for a career game? Back to the grind of school. Why did it all happen Sunday the way it happened for Ebo?

“I don’t really know,” she said. “I really wanted to win. I think that was it. I just wanted to go out there and help us get to the Sweet 16. Keeping them off the boards was important.” 

Ebo and teammate Maddy Westbeld (15 rebounds) allowed Notre Dame to post a crushing (+17) rebounding advantage. If there was a missed shot, one of those two were going to get it. 

When this one got close, the Irish stayed confident

Ivey could sense before this one tipped that Ebo was locked in. Focused. Determined. Ebo knew that she would have to hold it down around the basket against a Mississippi State team that would challenge Notre Dame more than first-round pushover Southern Utah. Ebo had to grab the rebounds. Ebo had to block the shots. Ebo had to make a difference. 

She did all that and more as Notre Dame (27-5) advanced to the tournament’s second weekend a second straight season. 

Afterward, on that post-game dais, Ebo offered almost as many giggles while seated next to Westbeld as she had rebounds. And she had a lot of rebounds. Winning makes everything seem funny. Even the post-game. 

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This one wasn’t easy. Not after Notre Dame had built an 11-point lead midway through the third quarter. Not after Mississippi State roared back to tie it at 41. There was real game pressure on the home team. You could sense it. You could see it. Like, uh-oh.

Miles did. Over on the sideline, she stood near the end of the Irish bench, held both hands up in the air and yelled to her five teammates on the floor — “We’re all right! We’re all right!” 

That they were. When somebody Notre Dame needed to deliver the game’s biggest basket, it was naturally Ebo, who took a teammate’s tip pass and scored to give the Irish a 43-41 lead. The game never again would be tied. Mississippi State never did get the lead there in the second half. 

For good measure, Ebo made sure to lock it down on the defensive end. The Bulldogs had one last push late, but Ebo sent a pair of shots back, both of which told the visitors, nope, not today. Not in what was her last home game at Purcell Pavilion. 

“Just getting a stop, doing whatever I can to help us win,” Ebo said. “I had to get a stop, which I did.” 

Notre Dame's Maddy Westbeld goes up for a shot as Mississippi State's JerKaila Jordan defends during the Mississippi State-Notre Dame NCAA Women’s Tournament Second Round basketball game on Sunday, March 19, 2023, at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.

More giggles. 

No last-second shot was needed. No confetti fell across the laptop keyboards of media seated courtside. No national championship was won. That was the only time these teams had met before Sunday — in Columbus, Ohio also on a cold Sunday night, for the national championship game in 2018. Five years later, also in postseason, the end still was the same. 

An Irish win. 

Noter Dame has played two NCAA tournament games, and won each in different ways. Want to get out in transition early and often against an overmatched opponent like Friday against Southern Utah? The Irish scored the game’s first 16 points and rarely broke a sweat. 

Notre Dame's Kylee Watson looks to pass the ball as Mississippi State's Debreasha Powe defends during the Mississippi State-Notre Dame NCAA Women’s Tournament Second Round basketball game on Sunday, March 19, 2023, at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.

Want to win the proverbial tournament rock fight where most of the day was a hide-you-eyes kind of game? Yeah, the Irish showed they could play that way, and also win that way. Just roll up their sleeves and get in the mud with a Mississippi State team that came to town averaging 71.8 points per game, but didn’t break 30 until 2:04 remained in the third quarter. 

It was a lot of fouls, a lot of falls and for the Irish, focus. Don’t worry about the grind of the game, just play it. Embrace it. Close game? The Irish had it.

“We just had to stay composed, get some stops,” said forward Kylee Watson. "Just staying locked in for 40 minutes. Being able to finish out in the end, we’re really proud of that.” 

Don’t worry about all those bricks. There were enough thrown up Sunday to build a new residence hall or two on campus. 

Hail State? More like, see ya, State. Team Resiliency is moving on. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.