How sweet for the fighting Irish
As a Notre Dame player and assistant coach, Niele Ivey appeared in 17 NCAA tournaments. She had won national championships in both areas, knowing full well what it was like to thrive on the sport’s biggest stage.
And yet, ahead of his team’s first-round game against UMass this weekend, Ivey experienced a new wave of excitement.
“I feel like a rookie,” she said. “Even though I’ve been there as a player and a coach, an assistant coach, to be here for the first time as a head coach is really special.”
Ivey is in the middle of his second year at the helm of the program. In his first campaign in 2021-21, the Fighting Irish struggled with significant roster turnover and saw their 24-season NCAA Tournament streak come to an end. What happened during that team’s 10-10 season thus helps explain why a year later they have so often discussed wanting to return to this very stage.
But Monday night, after No. 5 Notre Dame’s 108–64 bombardment of No. 4 Oklahoma, Ivey was left speechless.
“Honestly, I have no words,” she told reporters. “It’s something I prayed for, something I knew could come to life. And I’m so over the moon.
The Irish return to the Sweet 16 after hanging 60 points in the first half against the Sooners, shooting 53.9% from the field and recording both a season and NCAA Tournament best 108 points.
Senior guard Dara Mabrey lost 17 points in the first quarter and finished with 29 points. Her seven three-pointers tied her older sister Marina’s school record. And, while Dara didn’t attempt a three from space, it’s not absurd to think she would have broken the record had she had the chance. “I felt like I was oblivious,” Mabrey said. “I just knew when I grabbed it I was going to let it go and it was coming in.”
Whether Notre Dame even reached this stage of the tournament was far from guaranteed. Coming into March Madness, it had split its last eight games, at times looking little like the team that had started 13–3. That’s why Ivey said on Monday that “it’s just amazing for me to see them blossoming, blossoming before my eyes.”
Ivey and the Irish have lost five ACC games this season, tying the combined total of conference games his predecessor Muffet McGraw has lost in his last seven seasons. But through the ups and downs, the 44-year-old coach remained optimistic.
“I’m warm and fuzzy. I’m a relationship-oriented person,” Ivey said. Sports Illustrated before his freshman year of calling the shots. “I’m like the emotional one – I know how to be strong and how to keep our emotions in check when I need them.”
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Says McGraw, reflecting on his own style: “Warm and fuzzy versus…I don’t mean cold. Certainly just the facts.
The reality of this Notre Dame team is that it is not spectacular on either side of the floor. According to HerHoopsStats.com, the Irish are No. 30 in defensive rating and No. 24 in offensive rating, both good, but at this stage also often behind their competition. Luckily for them, their next opponent is a familiar foe, whom they’ve already defeated this season.
On Feb. 1, Notre Dame led NC State 52-43 early in the fourth quarter, extending its lead to 12 with 7:35 remaining in the game. Although the Irish showed their youth in the final stretch – the Wolfpack reduced the lead to just two with 1:41 to play – Notre Dame did not fold. “Oh my God, [it’s] euphoria for me,” Ivey said after the win. “I’m so proud of this group. It was a huge challenge. »
In that game, graduate forward Maya Dodson led the way with 20 points and 10 rebounds, edging out Wolfpack center Elissa Cunane, who finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. Who wins the paint battle will again help determine which ACC team advances to the Elite Eight.
After Monday’s win, when the Irish became the first team in NCAA men’s or women’s tournament history to beat a higher-seeded team by 40 points or more, Ivey said it was the first time she felt that this year’s group dominated four quarters. She has seen such efforts in the past, but now has a different perspective.
She knows what it takes to succeed at this stage of the tournament, and she sees her team reacting accordingly. “I’m super proud,” she said. “It’s a lot [of] growth for this group.
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• We are only in the Sweet 16, but some teams are closer to the title than others. Here is Kevin Sweeney’s ranking of all the remaining teams in the men’s category.
• The Big Ten have been packed with stars this season, which makes it all the more disappointing that so many of their teams have made early exits, writes Jeremy Woo.
• Four double-digit seeds, a downed No. 1 and several Blue Bloods off the field. Is a new level of March unpredictability upon us? Pat Forde explores this year’s Sweet 16 wild field.
From the vault: March 22, 2013
Before Saint Peter’s (and Oral Roberts), there was Dunk City. Nine years ago today, Florida Gulf Coast made history by defeating No. 2 Georgetown to become the first-ever No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. The Eagles’ top-flight act has stormed the country before ending against Florida in the regional semi-finals, when SI’s Tim Layden wrote about the success story. Can this year’s Peacocks do better and qualify for the Elite Eight?