Notre Dame women weren't losing Monday with a chance to get to the Sweet 16, right?

by 24USATVMarch 26, 2024, 1:01 a.m. 19
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SOUTH BEND — This was it.

No, this time, this really was it.

Just after 4 on Monday afternoon, with spring-like sunshine and temperatures beckoning out the doors of Purcell Pavilion, members of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team gathered at center court after four quarters of work and offered their customary wave of thanks.

To family and friends in the stands. To their fans. To a schedule that saw them play their final game in their home gym.

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Twenty-two days earlier, the Irish gathered in that same spot and offered that same salute. To family and friends in the stands. To their fans. To the regular season. That day — March 3 — Notre Dame (28-6) capped the regular season with a 16-point beatdown of Atlantic Coast Conference rival/fraud Louisville. The Irish were determined that day. The Irish were dominant that day. The Irish also were dubious that day, at least about their immediate basketball future.

Up next was a trip to North Carolina and the conference tournament in Greensboro. Beyond that − for however many days the Irish managed to survive and advance — no one knew what the rest of the month and the madness held for Notre Dame.

Maybe the Irish would win enough and do enough on Tobacco Road to sneak into the Top 16 and snag a pair of home games to start NCAA Tournament play. Maybe they’d have to go out and do it on the road, just as they’ve done this season in winning at Tennessee and at Connecticut and at several points along the ACC way.

Maybe their postseason plan could inch toward April with yet another visit to the Sweet 16, which would be a third-straight trip and 20th overall for a program saturated in postseason success.

Nobody knew what the future held for these Irish 22 days ago. To a player, and maybe to a coach, they certainly didn’t believe/think that it would hold all of this. And it's been a lot.

“Oh, my gosh, we have faced so much adversity since then,” said senior forward Nat Marshall. “We’re finding our groove at the right time. That’s what’s most important. That’s what March is all about.”

Three wins in three days by an average of 14.0 points to capture the ACC Tournament championship. A No. 2 seed in the Albany 1 Regional where you-know-who (whisper voice ... South Carolina ...) likely awaits in the regional final. Two home games to start the NCAA tournament, both dominating performances with wins by an average of 14.5 points. The second, a 71-56 victory Monday over Mississippi rarely was in doubt and punched that ticket to another Sweet 16.

“To win two home games is amazing,” said junior guard Sonia Citron. “We knew we could get here, but the road that it’s taken and the amount of work that we’ve put into that, it’s an incredible feeling.”

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Notre Dame played 80 minutes of bare-knuckle/blue collar basketball over three days at home. It led for 75:02. The gloves were off in both from the start. If this was going to be a fight, the Irish were going to fight. It was more a sparring session than heavyweight fight. Early TKOs in both. Two games. Two wins.

“You couldn’t write it up any better,” said graduate student guard Anna DeWolfe.

These Irish have discovered another gear

From wondering where everything was going then to now knowing that they don’t want this to end anytime soon. Not Friday in a regional semifinal against No. 3 seed Oregon State (tip time TBA) and definitely not with whatever may come next.

Those 22 days, in some ways, feel like they happened 22 minutes ago. In other ways, 22 months. This month has been a grind, a journey into uncertainty, but this is a Notre Dame team playing its best basketball at the right time having won a season-high 10 straight and 11 of 12.

What did Monday mean to Notre Dame? Depends on who you asked.

To Citron, who scored 17 points with 10 rebounds and six assists, Monday looked and felt a lot like her previous two seasons in South Bend. Like her freshman year. Like her sophomore year, Sweet 16s are all she’s known in her collegiate career, but truth be told, and truths were told post-game in the locker room lounge, Citron wants more.

The Sweet 16 also has been the stopping point for Notre Dame. These Irish don’t want to stop. Not yet. Not now.

“It’s great, but we’re trying to get past that now,” Citron said. “This year, we know what it takes to win a hard game. We’re confident and we’re ready.”

To DeWolfe, who had nine points, one rebound and one assist, Monday’s high-stakes game at the back end of March felt a lot like a far-less-pressure-filled non-conference game in early December. DeWolfe played in her first NCAA Tournament game 48 hours earlier, when she could run and shoot out any nerves.

Monday was more basketball business as usual. Postseason Pressure? What postseason pressure?

“It’s a dream come true (but) it feels like just another game,” DeWolfe said with a shrug. “The emotions are high, but I’ve dreamed of being here when I was a kid. Now that I’m here, it really feels surreal.

“I knew I was meant for this. I could be here if I worked hard.”

To Marshall, who transformed herself Monday into a point-forward with four points, three rebounds and five assists, one shy of a career high, it meant a class-free/stress-free day. The first day of the week usually would require Marshall to attend three classes. Because there was a basketball game at 2 p.m., Marshall had an excused absence for the day (thanks, NCAA).

“It was weird,” Marshall said of the odd early-afternoon weekday start time. “A lot of my classmates were here after class. Some of my professors as well. It was awesome.”

Yes, Monday indeed was it. The last time the fans could get there early to claim their parking spots and eat their lunches in their cars and wave their green Glo Sticks and cheer Soni and Maddy and Hannah and everyone else in an Irish uniform. The last time (please!) an Irish home game conflicted with a full day of classes on campus turned the Purcell Pavilion lots into a logistical nightmare.

Two hours-plus before tipoff, early-arrivers were already being funneled into Innovation Park. What was this, a fall weekend? Others were instructed to head to Eddy Street Commons and hoof it to the arena. Probably not the best way to organize everything, but hey, it’s over.

More:'Mindset was to attack.' How Notre Dame women's basketball wore down Ole Miss in NCAA battle

This academics-athletics conflict was a first and likely, the last.

“No,” Marshall said when asked if there was any chance – however slight – that Notre Dame wouldn’t win these two NCAA home games. “The atmosphere was amazing.”

Amazing, sure, but also, the end. No more home games for Irish women’s basketball, but plenty for Notre Dame to do.

Next stop, Albany. Next step, to be decided.

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

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