Lauren Ebo sets NCAA tourney rebound mark as Notre Dame is headed to Sweet 16
SOUTH BEND — It wasn’t pretty, as Maddy Westbeld put it, but it was pretty special.
With Lauren Ebo grabbing the most rebounds in an NCAA Tournament game in Notre Dame’s illustrious history — 18 to accompany 10 points and five blocked shots — with Westbeld adding a season-high 15 boards and nine points, and with enduring, knocked-about Sonia Citron still managing to fight her way to a game-high 14 points on a day she went 2-of-12 from the field, the Irish earned their second consecutive Sweet 16 women’s basketball trip Sunday.
Third-seeded ND (27-5) outlasted Mississippi State 53-48 in a scrumptious scrum and will face second seed Maryland (27-6) in a regional semifinal Saturday in Greenville, S.C. The time has not been announced.
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“It really showed the resiliency of this team,” Westbeld said after the Irish won their second straight tourney game with All-American point guard Olivia Miles sidelined for the season by a knee injury.
The 11th-seeded Bulldogs (22-11) rallied from an 11-point third-quarter deficit to knot the contest at 43-43 with 4:12 to go in the fourth quarter, before ND outscored the visitors 10-5 the remainder of the way.
“Everybody stepped up when they had to and it wasn’t pretty a lot of the time,” Westbeld said, “but … I’m proud of this team, the way that we showed our toughness.”
Toughness was a buzzword.
“The toughness of this team is unbelievable,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “Not a lot of people thought we would be up here headed to the Sweet 16 (after the injury to Miles on top of the season-ending one in late January to Dara Mabrey), but we have a belief, a lot of love, a lot of trust in our locker room.”
The Maryland encounter will be a rematch, after the Terrapins beat host ND 74-72 on Diamond Miller’s buzzer-beating game-winner on Dec. 1.
Analysis: Another postseason matchup vs. Mississippi State, another Notre Dame win
► The 33 combined rebounds by Ebo and Westbeld were one more than the Bulldogs had as a team as the Irish won the critical board battle 49-32 on a day each side struggled with its shooting against some physical defense.
“We are phenomenal when we can get out in the open court and run,” State coach Sam Purcell said, “but if you can’t rebound … Notre Dame has got something special there. They have a lot of size, even at the point, one through five. We knew it would be an absolute war, so that’s why we tried to get after it full-court and wear them out as strong as they were. We were trying to get steals.”
Yet, ND even won that category, 9-7.
As for the rebounding specifically, that propelled the Irish to a 13-6 advantage in second-chance points.
State had outrebounded eight of its last nine opponents and was averaging five more than its opposition per game, but that didn’t matter against ND, which is averaging 11 more than its opponents.
► Often knocked sideways by the Bulldogs, Citron, on the way to drawing nine called fouls, finished with her second-worst shooting game of the season at 2-of-12 from the field, yet her value still wound up typically candescent.
One of the unwavering sophomore guard’s baskets came on a drive in traffic with 3:03 left to put the Irish up 47-43.
Then she hit 5-of-6 free throws over the final 1:15, including a pair that clinched the outcome for ND with 2.5 seconds remaining.
“Big-time players step up and make big-time plays, and that’s what Soni did,” Ivey said after leaving Citron on the floor for all 40 minutes. “She struggled a lot, but she ended up with 10 out of 14 (at the line, and) she made her last four (over the final 13.6 seconds), which were big.”
Citron also led all players with four steals. Westbeld added three.
► The Irish defense, mixing man and zone, limited the lately hot Dawgs to just 29.5% from the field overall and 3-of-20 on 3-pointers.
State, coming off wins of 70-56 over Illinois and 81-66 over Creighton to open its tourney drive, had shot 46% from the field overall and 15-of-33 on triples in those two wins.
“You have to give credit to Notre Dame’s defense,” Purcell said. “They are long and they made us take some rushed shots.”
The Bulldogs finished with their second-lowest point total of the season and 24 below their average going in.
The Irish, overcoming 19 turnovers, finished with their lowest point output in a win and fourth-lowest overall.
► Just as in the first round, ND’s two freshmen looked right at home in postseason.
KK Bransford scored nine points, including a pair of free throws that put the Irish up for good at 45-43, clutched five rebounds, dealt three assists and made two steals. Prosper added seven points off the bench.
► ND won its18th straight NCAA Tourney home game and improved to 24-2 all-time as a host. The Irish haven’t lost at home in postseason since 2009.
Notre Dame 53, Mississippi St. 48
MISSISSIPPI ST. (22-11): Jessika Carter 3-8 2-4 8, Powe 1-8 0-0 2, Hayes 3-5 0-4 6, Jordan 2-11 1-2 5, Smith 3-13 0-0 7, Denae Carter 0-1 0-0 0, Parker 0-2 2-2 2, Johnson 1-3 2-2 4, Weber 5-10 2-2 14, Totals 18-61 9-16 48
NOTRE DAME (27-5): Ebo 3-7 4-5 10, Watson 2-5 0-0 4, Westbeld 4-13 1-4 9, Bransford 3-7 3-4 9, Citron 2-12 10-14 14, Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Prosper 3-5 1-4 7, Totals 17-49 19-31 53
3-Point Goals—Mississippi St. 3-20 (Powe 0-2, Jordan 0-4, Smith 1-7, Parker 0-1, Weber 2-6), Notre Dame 0-7 (Westbeld 0-4, Citron 0-3). Assists—Mississippi St. 7 (Hayes 2, Johnson 2, Smith 2), Notre Dame 5 (Bransford 3). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Mississippi St. 32 (J.Carter 6, Jordan 6), Notre Dame 49 (Ebo 18). Total Fouls—Mississippi St. 22, Notre Dame 17. Technical Fouls—None. A—4,565.
NCAA results from South Bend
7 p.m.: No. 11 Mississippi State 70, No. 11 Illinois 56
No. 3 Notre Dame 82, No. 14 Southern Utah 56
No. 11 Mississippi 81, No. 6 Crieghton 66
No. 3 Notre Dame 53, No. 11 Mississippi State 48