Irish freshman guard KK Bransford looks to ace her continuing NCAA Tournament education

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune
Notre Dame's KK Bransford is fouled by Mississippi State's Anastasia Hayes 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.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — No longer is she a newbie. 

This time last week, 650 miles away back in cold and snowy and dreary South Bend, Notre Dame freshman guard KK Bransford wasn’t sure how this whole NCAA Tournament stuff worked. The practices, the open locker rooms, the media availabilities, the green nail polish, the attention and, ultimately, the games. all as foreign to her as Mandarin Chinese. 

Last March, Bransford was home in Cincinnati capping a standout prep career at Mount Notre Dame that saw her score 2,172 points, go 111-3, win two state championships and become only the sixth in state history to twice earn Ms. Ohio Basketball honors. 

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The 2022-23 regular season was Bransford’s welcome to big-time college basketball. She thought that might give her some idea of the NCAA Tournament. Then last week rolled around and Bransford again was a wide-eyed rookie. 

How does all this work?

Once the games tipped, though, she lost all of that newness and uncertainty. Well, maybe most of it. Now on a run of five straight games of playing at least 30 minutes — the longest through her first season — Bransford went for nine points, eight rebounds, five assists and one block in 31 minutes in a first-round wipeout of Southern Utah. Notre Dame never trailed while scoring the game’s first 16 points. She finished with a team-best plus/minus rating of (+29). That means that while she was on the floor, a whole lot of good happened. 

Two days later, also at home against Mississippi State and also starting, Bransford offered nine points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals in 33 minutes in a 53-48 victory.

From Bransford’s point of view, that first NCAA experience couldn’t have gone any better. 

“I’d rate it a 10 out of 10,” she said with a smile. “The crowd was electrifying and us winning the games and playing how we’ve been playing, it’s just been a great experience.” 

One that Bransford hopes continues Saturday morning (11:30 a.m., ESPN) as No. 3 seed Notre Dame (27-5) gets a rematch against No. 2 Maryland (27-6) in a Greenville Regional 1 Sweet 16 showdown at Bon Secours Wellness Arena (say that three times fast). 

Freshman guard KK Bransford and Notre Dame get another chance at Maryland on Saturday in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game in Greenville, S.C.

Maryland beat Notre Dame, 74-72, when the teams met Dec. 1 in South Bend. That was an NCAA-tournament kind of game that featured 10 ties and 15 lead changes. Notre Dame led by as many as seven; Maryland led by as many as eight. It was as high level as hoops gets. Can we get it again now in March? Please? 

Bransford played a then-season high 26 minutes with eight points, two rebounds and two steals. Notre Dame certainly is different now with starting guards Dara Mabrey and Olivia Miles out for the season with knee injuries. Bransford’s also different. 

She’s a freshman in name only after a season in which she’s averaged 8.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.9 steals in 23.8 minutes. The losses of Mabrey and Miles have forced the 5-foot-11 Bransford to grow up fast on the floor. Easing into game situations as a young one no longer is an option. 

This is the NCAA Tournament now, where one possession, one bad quarter, one bad half can bring no tomorrow. Win or go home? Sure, but not as much as it’s play really well or stop playing. That’s what the tournament’s first weekend taught Bransford. It’s still the same game, but everything about it is different. High stakes. Higher stress. 

“It’s anybody’s game,” she said. “The competition is so difficult. Everybody wants to win. Everybody’s playing a lot tougher. There’s a lot more pressure.” 

Asked to do a lot, Bransford has had answers

That offers Bransford two options — shrink under the spotlight or embrace it. Sunday against Mississippi State, she answered it at the start of the second half. Notre Dame massaged a three-point halftime lead. Mississippi State was right there; all it had to do was make a few shots. 

A Bransford burst started the third quarter. She broke loose for two quick buckets to help Notre Dame extend its lead to 10. Purcell Pavilion then got really loud. A third Bransford basket — a driving left-handed layup — kept the advantage in double figures. 

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She did it all while reminding herself to stay patient, and settle down. 

“I still had some nerves,” Bransford said. “After halftime, Maddy Westbeld told us to go out there and have fun and let the nerves die down. Then I got more comfortable.” 

Bransford has felt more in the flow since a forgettable performance against Louisville in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. That was the first full game that Notre Dame had to be Notre Dame without Miles. It showed. The Irish couldn’t take of the basketball, while Bransford had her own issues. She played 31 minutes, but managed only one basket and two points with eight turnovers. Ooof. 

No Mabrey as a pressure release and no Miles as the press breaker/handler/creator/wizard has put added emphasis on Bransford’s ball handling. Now it’s Sonia Citron, Bransford and seldom-used/still somewhat shaky guard Jenna Brown to solve whatever the opposing defenses throw at them. 

Expect the Terps to throw a lot. Get past this point in the tournament, and you better have good guards. Bransford knows she better be good not only with the ball Saturday, but with everything she’s asked/expected to do. 

Score it? Yep. Take care of it? Sure. Inbound. Make decisions. Have a stronger say in huddles? Bransford has to do all of that as well. The week of practice after the 26-point loss to Louisville was particularly demanding. Irish coach Niele Ivey threw her into myriad situations where she had to be good with the ball and even better with her decisions. She aced almost every assignment. 

“I’ve pretty much thrown everything at her and she’s accepted all these roles,” Ivey said. “I’m really impressed by her maturity; I’ve been very impressed by her versatility.” 

Feb 12, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Niele Ivey talks to guard Olivia Miles (5) and guard KK Bransford (14) in the second half against the Syracuse Orange at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Irish also have impressed with their resiliency. The game against Mississippi State was everything that the first one against Southern Utah wasn’t. There was stress. There was pressure. When it was tied at 41 after that double-digit lead disintegrated, there was real doubt that Notre Dame might not make it to the tournament’s second weekend a second straight season. 

Bransford and her teammates played in a way that seemed to shrug it all off and say, yeah, we’ve got this. Now they have to do it again. As good as the Irish were last weekend, they better be better this weekend. The 18 turnovers that Notre Dame committed that first time out against Maryland? Not going to cut it. Those 19 miscues Sunday against Mississippi State? Again, that’s playing with fire, especially this time of year when everyone is good. 

“We just have to stay composed,” Bransford said. “We have to stay poised and stick to our game.” 

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

NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament Greenville 1 Regional

  • WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (27-5) vs. No. 2 Maryland (27-6)
  • WHEN: Saturday, 11:30 a.m.
  • WHERE: Bon Secours Wellness Arena (15,951), Greenville, S.C.
  • LISTEN: WQLQ (99.9 FM; link at UND.com).