Too many miscues send Irish home from NCAA regional semifinals

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Scanning the scene along the Notre Dame sideline in the closing minutes of Saturday’s regional semifinal said it all. 

You didn’t have to look up at the scoreboard or wait for a replay to read the room. 

Sitting three seats apart were forwards Lauren Ebo and Maddy Westbeld, both of whom need to be on the floor doing what they do — playing, scoring, rebounding, mattering — for the Irish to have a chance. Neither were. Both carried the same blank expression as they stared somewhere into the Bon Secours Wellness Arena stands after fouling out within 40 seconds of one another. 

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Mar 25, 2023; Greenville, SC, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Natalija Marshall (15) tries to keep the ball inbounds during the second half against the Maryland Terrapins during the NCAA Women’s Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

To Westbeld’s right sat guard Dara Mabrey. In a gray warmup suit, Mabrey wiped away tears while watching what was left of her final season — one that ended with a knee injury back in late January — officially end. Next to Mabrey was sophomore guard Olivia Miles, dealing with her own knee-injury issues, for which she’s set for surgery likely this week. Miles rubbed Mabrey’s back during a timeout. 

With no Miles and no Mabrey and Ebo and Westbeld limited in what they could offer because of fouls, this Irish ride of resiliency ended. For the second straight season, Notre Dame advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. But for the second straight season, it served as a stopping point for a program that has designs on taking it further. Soon. 

Next year will have to wait. Notre Dame saw this one finish at 27-6 following a 76-59 loss. The Irish uncharacteristically stepped out of character in a second half that seemed theirs for the taking. Notre Dame looked and felt and seemed 20 good minutes away from taking its shot against No. 1 South Carolina. Twenty bad minutes sent the Irish back to South Bend. 

Notre Dame had done so much well in a first half that saw it shake the nerves of handling the Maryland pressure. Down five only 59 seconds in, Notre Dame eventually got rolling thanks to 13 consecutive points that pushed the Irish up eight. Halftime arrived and the Irish were up one. 

After that, it all went to pieces. The second half started with a turnover, but a lot of what the Irish looked to do Saturday started with a turnover. Maryland found an extra gear. Notre Dame found its way to a place it never wants to be after committing a season-high 25 turnovers. 

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“Disheartening,” said Irish coach Niele Ivey. 

Dis- everything. Disappointing. Disconnected. Disjointed. Then, eventually, dismissed as that one-point Irish lead crumbled into a 22-point deficit late in the fourth quarter. From right there to never there. 

“I honestly think we did it to ourselves, just too many turnovers,” sophomore guard Sonia Citron said of the second-half collapse. “We didn't take care of the ball. We kind of just went rogue. That's on us. We didn't really play with the discipline we should have.” 

Rouge not in a bad way, just in an uncharacteristic one. Instead of sticking to the script, the Irish strayed. You can’t stray this deep into March. With every missed shot, with every empty possession, with every defensive lapse, the thought became more about “me” and less about “we.” 

“Everyone was trying to get us going,” Ivey said. “So, the rogue part of it, kind of going one-on-one because they were trying to make something happen.” 

Only bad happened. 

No Mabrey and no Miles and foul trouble for Ebo and Westbeld and fellow forward Kylee Watson aside, these Irish this post-season always believed they would find a way out. They’d figure it out. They’d win games that others insisted they had no business winning. Same for Saturday. 

Notre Dame tried to work its way back against a team that was more determined, more focused. Just better. There were no answers. Only turnovers. And missed shots. And fouls. Once the Irish forwards fell into foul trouble, the Terrapins struck. They started driving the ball, attacking the paint, getting to the rim and getting easy buckets. 

Maryland scored eight points in the paint in the first half. In the second, it went for 16. It was that easy. 

This one was expected to be close. That’s the way these regional semifinals here have gone. Friday’s games in the Greenville 2 regional featured two contests decided by a total of eight points. Miami (Fla.) won by five. LSU won by three. There was drama. There was heartbreak. There was little of that Saturday, except for the heartbreak. 

When Notre Dame and Maryland played earlier this season, that game featured 10 ties and 15 lead changes. With six ties and four lead changes, this one never got off the ground. Thank the Terrapins. 

Once human nature kicked in, the Irish resiliency had run its collective course. Every empty possession squeezed the vise that much tighter. Didn’t score last time down? Better score this time down. Notre Dame may not have panicked, but it just didn’t play with the poise that’s needed in the post-season's second weekend. 

The Irish talking points during the month — between games, during media sessions, after wins — was all about excitement and pride and resilience and toughness. One team showed all that on Saturday, and it wasn’t Notre Dame. 

In the end, it’s the silence that sticks with you. On the bench in those closing minutes. Afterward, in the locker room and on the long walk to the post-game interview. Nobody wants to be there. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s part of the game, so they sit there in near silence and fight their way through it. 

They’ll all be better for it — Citron and Westbeld and Watson and the rest. This program’s core is rock solid. The future’s still bright. The ceiling? Scary high. Top 10 next year? At the least. Maybe better. Probably. 

“We learned so much,” Citron said of this season. “I think you can look on the positive side, and next year we will all just have so much more experience because of the situations we were put in.” 

Watch, a year from now, we should be sitting at some regional site not worrying about resiliency, not wondering what might have been had it not been for this injury or that setback. Come that day, Notre Dame will be doing something that it hasn’t done the last two seasons when the moment arrives. 

Moving on. 

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