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Niele Ivey confident Notre Dame WBB can build off Sweet 16 heartbreak

After South Carolina dismantled Notre Dame and its national title aspirations in the Nov. 6 season opener in Paris, 100-71, the persistent narrative of what this Irish women’s basketball team wasn’t hung over ND all season.

Only exacerbated by a string of significant injuries and the deferred return by All-American Olivia Miles to 2025 beyond serving as an important practice/prep player.

What the Irish became in the face of all that won’t take the sting away from 3-seeded Oregon State’s ability to finally expose and exploit 2 seed Notre Dame’s poorly camouflaged Achilles heel in a 70-65 Sweet 16 white-knuckler in Albany. N.Y.

But it figures to be the foundation for a team with bigger dreams in 2025 and the additional pieces to fuel them.

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“Tough experience, tough loss for us, but I would just tell you, I love my team,” said fourth-year head coach Niele Ivey, whose NCAA Tourney run she was orchestrating, stalled one step ahead of the Elite Eight for the third year in a row.

“This is an incredible group, and we battled a lot this season. We left it on the floor, and just proud of who we are. The last several weeks, winning 10 straight games, redefining ourselves late in February, being ACC champs in a season that had a lot of highs and lows, we really battled. We found our identity, our character, and I'm just blessed to coach this group.”

An Oregon State team (27-7), meanwhile, that won just 13 games last season and was picked to finish 10th in the final season of existence of the Pac-12 Conference, survives and advances to meet that South Carolina team that rolled through the season and the first two rounds of this NCAA Tournament undefeated before laboring for its 35th win on Friday.

The top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Gamecocks survived 4 seed Indiana in Saturday’s second Albany I Regional semifinal at MVP Arena, 79-75, after leading by 19 at the half and will play for a fourth straight trip to the Final Four against the Beavers on Sunday.

Conceivably every player who saw game action for the Irish (28-7) on Friday will return, except for Fordham transfer guard Anna DeWolfe, though forwards Nat Marshall and Maddy Westbeld — seniors academically — haven’t yet made formal announcements regarding a fifth-year return.

Miles did announce her return earlier this month, and presumably returning among the injury brigade will be post Kylee Watson and guards Cass Prosper and Emma Risch.

There will be at least one notable addition, five-star 6-5 center Kate Koval, who will play in a national showcase, the McDonald All American Game, Tuesday night in Houston (6:30 EDT; ESPN2).

“It's never easy taking a loss or losing,” Ivey said, “but I feel like I've won with this team, because they're amazing. They inspire me, and I'm grateful to be able to stay here with them and be able to lead them.

“This is going to propel next season. We are going to use this as motivation. We're going to be better. We're going to be great, and I'm excited to get back to work with them.”

Ivey had reason to be excited Saturday after her team rallied 10 points down in the third quarter to take the lead twice in the fourth, the final time on DeWolfe’s midrange jumper with 4:19 left in the game that put the Irish up 59-57.

Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey can't wait to start the building process for the 2024-25 Irish season.
Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey can't wait to start the building process for the 2024-25 Irish season. (Mary Altaffer, Associated Press)

But she had reason to be frustrated as well, with an inordinate amount of referee trips to the replay monitor or to check a call or adjust a shot clock that was showing 10th of seconds at the 10-second mark instead of at 5 seconds and under.

And when freshman point guard Hannah Hidalgo was sidelined for the first 4:09 of the second quarter to have a nose ring removed by trainers — and it appeared painfully so — after wearing it all season, including the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

“That's the first I had heard about the nose ring,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck responded in the postgame press conference when asked about it. “I was not aware of that. I didn't know any of those things until now.”

Said Ivey, “I didn't know what happened, so I guess it was a point of emphasis in the Sweet 16 with jewelry. And she's had a nose ring the entire season. Just wish we would have known beforehand. Can't control it, so we had to move on.”

Oregon State sophomores Raegan Beers and Timea Gardiner, two top 10 national recruits in the 2022 class, are the biggest reasons the Irish moving on didn’t lead to advancing another step in the bracket.

The 6-4 All-American Beers came into the game as the nation’s leading shooter (.663) from the field and surpassed that in the post against the Irish. She went 9-of-12 from the field for 18 points, including a 2-footer with 29 seconds left that upped Oregon State’s lead to 67-63 and essentially iced the game for the Beavers.

“We tried a couple different things on her,” said junior guard Sonia Citron, who capped a phenomenal last-season/postseason surge with 22 points, seven rebounds and four steals on Friday playing back in her home state.

“Whether it was fronting her and trying to be in help or it was playing behind her and trying to trap. We tried to throw a couple different things at her. Credit to her; she's a phenomenal player, so she was able to sometimes beat what we threw at her.”

Beers did commit seven turnovers, two more than the entire Irish team. In fact, Notre Dame stayed within striking distance until the end, despite getting dominated on the boards (42-24) and in shooting from the field (60 to 36 percent), because of the turnover differential.

It ended up being 26-5, with the Irish winning the points-off-turnover column 29-7.

“We've done a really good job this year with being disciplined in position defense, so the goal is ‘make them miss’.” said Rueck, whose team came into the game eighth nationally in field goal-percentage defense and 329 out of 349 in turnover margin. “That's why we don't have a lot of steals. It took 39 minutes for us to get one, I was told today.

“But we made them miss a ton of shots and shoot below their average and score below their average because of it. In a way, we don't pressure, but in a way we do because we're making you do something all game long you don't really want to do. That made them look as uncomfortable as they did.”

Particularly Hidalgo, who finished with 10 points — tying her career low — on 4-of-17 shooting from the field.

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“She was a little frustrated with a couple of her shots that normally go in,” said Ivey, who could be seen having some heart-to-heart chats with Hidalgo during breaks in the action. “My conversations are just to empower her, lift her up, positive words of encouragement, knowing that [she’s] just got to get to the next play, and it's OK.

“The game is not perfect, and she knows that. Just trying to build confidence in her in any way that I can. She's the type of player that can take over, so it was mostly just words of encouragement and positivity.”

Westbeld was a matchup problem for the Beavers, scoring 19 points and adding four steals. But Gardiner, who at times was guarded by Westbeld, was the same. The 6-d forward led Oregon State with 21 points, with two 3s, and 11 rebounds.

“An incredible player. Knew that going in,” Ivey said. “Recruited her, as I watched her for a very long time. She's very efficient. I felt like she hit us with some dagger, dagger plays. The 3 going into the fourth quarter with about five seconds left.

“Her size, her presence, she's very poised. Plays with a ton of confidence, is having an incredible season. Credit to her. She's got great balance around here so she's allowed to play with freedom, and I thought she had a fantastic game today.”

And a chance to coax Oregon State to its second-ever Final Four if the Beavers can take down South Carolina on Sunday.

Notre Dame is now subject to watching instead of measuring itself again against the consistently best women’s college basketball program of the last four years, including a national title two seasons ago.

But after a short break to decompress from the season, the building process revs up again.

“My comment to the team: ‘There's so much good — this program, this team,” Ivey said. “We have great firepower coming back. You can't teach experience, especially for Hannah. That's what my entire team has received this year.

“These types of moments, therefore, are part of our journey, are part of our growth as a program, as a team. And being able to win the ACC, we're going to learn from all the wonderful experiences that we've received this season. We've had so much growth this year, and I'm really, really excited for the team that's returning. It's going to be incredible to see.”

OREGON STATE 70, NOTRE DAME 65: Box Score

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Notre Dame post Nat Marshall (left) and Oregon State counterpart Raegan Beers run down court during Friday's Sweet 16 matchup.
Notre Dame post Nat Marshall (left) and Oregon State counterpart Raegan Beers run down court during Friday's Sweet 16 matchup. (Mary Altaffer, Associated Press)

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