Notre Dame Women, Niele Ivey Look To Build Better Tomorrows
Last week was not a pleasant one for head coach Niele Ivey and the Notre Dame’s women’s basketball program.
After waiting 10 days and holding out hope that the 10-10 Fighting Irish would receive an NCAA Tournament bid, Selection Monday (March 15) came up empty with Notre Dame among the "last four out," which Ivey magnanimously accepted. Five fourth-quarter collapses in defeat created the disappointing outcome, and possibly just one victory among those five might have been enough. The opportunities were there but not seized.
“I can’t really question the decision,” Ivey said. “I just want to make sure that in the future I do my due diligence to make sure that we are in control of our destiny. I have to roll with the cards that I’ve been dealt right now…I’m hoping to be able to be in control more [next] year and put ourselves in a really good position where it’s a solid invite.”
She added that the decision to end the season rather than accept a bid to the WNIT in San Antonio was hers.
“I just felt like with injuries and … it wasn’t something I wanted to participate in for many reasons,” said Ivey last Thursday.
Perhaps among them, but not publicly known at the time, was the decision by three of her freshmen — guards Alasia Hayes and Alli Campbell plus forward Amirah Abdur-Rahim — to enter the transfer portal.
Meanwhile, sixth-year senior Destinee Walker and senior Mikki Vaughn have been ready to move on beyond college basketball, and in the upcoming week some MRI’s will be taken among current team members. That confluence of factors didn’t make more practice this year worthwhile, according to Ivey.
“We had a couple of players who were playing through injuries,” Ivey reasoned. “There was a lot mentally on them dealing with COVID. It was better for us to be done and get healthy. I thought it was the best move for us moving forward.”
On Friday, she traveled to Indianapolis to watch her freshman son, Jaden Ivey, play for No. 4 seed Purdue in the NCAA Tournament. Despite a superb effort by him with a career-high 26 points, the Boilermakers were upset by No. 13 seed North Texas.
Then on Saturday, 6-2 Fort Wayne, Ind., forward Ayanna Patterson, committed to UConn over the Fighting Irish, Louisville, Indiana and UCLA. Ranked the No. 3 prospect in the nation by ESPN Hoopgurlz, Patterson was a top priority in the 2022 class, with Ivey reportedly offering her a scholarship in her first week on the job last spring.
Thus ended the discouraging week of an extremely challenging maiden voyage as the head coach, although the typically upbeat Ivey believes the fire from the present will help create steel in the future.
Learning On The Fly
Combining the learning curve of a rookie head coach with a global pandemic was not an ideal mix.
“That was something I definitely learned on the fly the entire season,” Ivey said. “I’ve learned so much. I thought it was a phenomenal year of growth for me. Obviously, I would still like to be playing, to be dancing in the tournament. That’s always been a part of my goal, is to compete and to continue playing post-season and compete for a national championship.
“Not having that opportunity this year, it allowed me the last couple of days just to reflect on how much I learned as a coach and how much we’ve grown as a team.”
The foremost goal for now in 2021-22 is to have a healthy, relatively normal summer, and the current trends toward that are encouraging.
“Not having a summer last summer due to COVID and just the school not having athletes on campus, this summer I want to build that chemistry,” she said. “That’s going to be the thing I’m really looking forward to … establish culture, the offense and defense, having the opportunity to do it early and not starting almost in October because of protocols.
“…The team is still kind of learning the system. It’s something we had to do on the fly in putting certain things in. I think I’ll have it in early enough for next season, and adding (Stanford grad transfer) Maya Dodson and (McDonald’s All-American and freshman) Sonia Citron, I think that’s going to be huge to build that chemistry early.
“The summer is where you get to grow as a team: the camaraderie, the chemistry on the court, playing pick-up, just playing. We didn’t get a chance to do that. I started the season with six, seven players, added players throughout the season, added an early enrollee [point guard Olivia Miles]— so the chemistry is going to be huge. Having that opportunity to have the team for a longer stretch of time, early before the season, is going to make a big difference next year.”
Pluses And Minuses
The most glaring problems this season, beyond the fourth-quarter meltdowns, were turnovers and rebounding.
Among 336 Division I teams, Notre Dame finished 237th in turnovers per game (17.1) and 185th in rebound margin (minus-0.7). Ivey believes the turnover issue can be rectified some now that top-10-ranked prospect Miles was thrown into the college basketball fire this January.
“That experience is going to help us be able to close out games,” Ivey said.
With Miles and ACC Rookie of the Year Maddy Westbeld, who led the team in scoring (15.2 points per game) and rebounding (7.9), there is a strong base to build in the backcourt and frontcourt for years to come. Adding the 6-3 Dodson and 6-1 wing Citron fulfills the roster balance Ivey is seeking.
“With the addition of Maya Dodson she’s going to bring a level of experience, leadership, her athleticism — she’s an incredible athlete — I think her position is something we have needed as far as her height, her ability to be a rim protector, rebounder and a scorer.
“The addition of Sonia, she’s very similar to (2016-19 starter and No. 1 WNBA pick) Jackie Young. She’s an all-purpose athlete. She can run the point, she can be a 1 through 4, she’s a great shooter, great rebounder, great defender …
“Just being a position-less team, that’s something that I want to hopefully grow into where I have multiple players that can play multiple positions within my offense. Adding those to a healthy Sam [Brunelle] next year, Anaya Peoples…I think we’re going to be even more versatile and we’re going to have a lot of depth at a lot of different positions next year.”
In 2019-20, Notre Dame finished 317th in three-point percentage (.271), but this year was 41st (.352) with the addition of Dara Mabrey and Westbeld, who along with Brunelle all shot at least .383 beyond the arc.
“Offensively, I feel like we got a lot better,” Ivey said. “I could tell our team was understanding it a lot better.”
The superpower that was from 2011-19 with seven Final Four berths, five titles games and the 2018 national title is no more with a 23-28 mark the past two years.
No NCAA Tournament the following season would be stunning — especially with six former McDonald’s All-Americans plus top-10 figure Miles — but the bar is and should be much higher than just receiving a bid.
“That’s going to ignite them the rest of the offseason,” Ivey said. “That’s something that is always going to be in the back of our minds, wanting to work and wanting the opportunity to play again. It’s going to be a long time. This is going to allow us to have a lot of fire and drive as we prepare for next season.
“This situation for me always is going to make me work harder and motivated to get back.”
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