During its Selection Show for women’s college basketball on Monday evening, ESPN used some creative license to label Notre Dame’s 2017-18 campaign as a “Mir-ACL-e Season.”
To them, you can’t spell miracle without ACL, which sidelined four Notre Dame players — senior forward Brianna Turner, senior point guards Mychal Johnson and Lili Thompson and freshman forward Mikayla Vaughn — before the turn of the New Year, and even as far back as last March for Turner.
Nevertheless, for the seventh consecutive season head coach Muffet McGraw’s Fighting Irish earned a No. 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament on the strength of a 29-3 regular season record, a fifth-straight ACC regular season championship and the No. 1-rated strength of schedule, defeating nine ranked opponents along the way, second most in the country. Seven of those ranked wins were away from home, which led the country, and 15 total wins came versus the RPI Top-50 — which also paced the nation.
As a top-4 seed, Notre Dame will host the first two games in the 64-team NCAA Tournament, beginning with a 5 p.m. tip-off versus Cal State University, Northridge on Friday, March 16 (ESPN2). A win then would pit them against the winner of No. 8-seed South Dakota State versus No. 9-seed Villanova. That second-round contest would be played on Sunday, March 18, for the right to advance to the Spokane Regional with the same Friday-Sunday format.
The No. 2 seed in the Spokane Regional is Pac-12 champion Oregon. At No. 3 is Ohio State — coached by former McGraw assistant Kevin McGuff, who lost in the Sweet 16 to the Irish last year — and the No. 4 seed is Texas A&M, which defeated Notre Dame in the 2011 national title game.
“This is a great reward for this team for what they’ve been through playing the nation’s No. 1 schedule,” said McGraw, named the national coach of the year by USA Today. “I’m so proud of this group and what it accomplished.”
All-American junior guard Arike Ogunbowale paced the Irish in scoring with a 20.2 average, followed by junior forward Jessica Shepard (15.0 and a team high 7.9 rebounds per contest), while junior Marina Mabrey and sophomore Jackie Young, also guards, each averaged 14.2. Senior forward Kathryn Westbeld is the glue figure with 7.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Off the bench are graduate student Kristina Nelson and freshman Danielle Patterson, both in the front court.
Notre Dame has never played in the West bracket, and it will also be entering the tournament coming off a 74-72 loss to fellow No. 1-seed Louisville in the ACC Championship contest, only its fourth league loss in its five-year history in the ACC.
“It’s been an emotional ride for us, and coming off a loss I feel like this is a new season and new opportunity for us,” McGraw said. “It’s a different perspective for us, and I think this team is highly motivated.”
Notre Dame is one of four schools to make the last eight Sweet 16s with UConn, Stanford and Baylor. The Irish, UConn and Baylor are the only teams to reach the Elite Eight six times in the last seven years.
McGraw’s squad advanced to the Final Four five straight seasons from 2011-15, but lost in the Lexington Regional each of the last two seasons to Stanford, in the Sweet 16 in 2016 and the Elite Eight last year.
Because it is spring semester break at Notre Dame this week, the male practice players won’t be available leading up to Friday’s game. That, combined with a 12-day layoff between games, might lead to some initial rust, per McGraw. (Once the NCAA Tournament commences, male practice players are not allowed anyway.)
Cal State University, Northridge (19-15) made the tournament after upsetting top-seeded UC Davis, 63-55, on Saturday night in the Big West Tournament championship. The Matadors, who have advanced to the NCAA Tournament three of the last five years, have won five of their last six games.