After missing NCAA tournament, Notre Dame looks toward future

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Is the ACC the best conference in women’s college basketball? Perhaps, but its case is stronger now as it had eight teams — the most of any conference — named to the 64-team field for the 2021 NCAA tournament.

And that’s a group that didn’t include Notre Dame, which officially missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.

During a Zoom call with reporters on Thursday, first-year Irish head coach Niele Ivey said it was her decision to for the Irish to not play in the WNIT. Notre Dame was among the NCAA tournament selection committee’s First Four Out and likely would’ve been a favorite to win the second-tier tournament had the Irish accepted an invite.

“With injuries, it just felt like it wasn’t something I wanted to participate in for many reasons,” Ivey said of the WNIT.

The Irish finished the season with a 10-10 record and went 8-7 in ACC play. They were ousted in the first round of the conference tournament by Clemson. Notre Dame went 5-6 against tournament-bound teams and were 56th in NET rankings.

“Every year, the committee looks at different factors,” Ivey said. “I can’t really question the decision. 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, where it’s a solid invite.”

The future for Notre Dame seems to be clear: 6-foot-3 forward Maddy Westbeld was named ACC Freshman of the Year by the league’s head coaches, and early enrollee Olivia Miles impressed mightily and took command of the offense when she joined the team.  Westbeld led Notre Dame in scoring and rebounding with 15.2 points and 7.9 boards per-game. Across six games, Miles averaged 9.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per-game while shooting 51.1% from the floor.

“She’s going to embrace the weight room,” Ivey said of Miles. “As far as on the court, she does so many things well. I’ll get the opportunity to have a lot of film study with her… She already has a great package. She’s very shifty as a point guard. It’s just trying to tighten up the skills that she has and increasing her mid-range and getting consistent from the three.”

Miles and Westbled are the building blocks for Ivey going forward. And next season, paired with Dara Mabrey, Stanford-transfer Maya Dodson and top-20 recruit Sonia Citron — who Ivey compared to former No. 1 overall WNBA Draft pick Jackie Young — and the Irish should have a formidable team.

“Sonia can do a lot of different things well,” Ivey said. “So, it’s just going to be fun to implement her in our offense, just to see where her strengths are and where she can help us. She’s very versatile. I can see her playing multiple positions. She’s ready and willing to do whatever I need. She’s going to be great in my offense. She’s got a great three-point shot and she can handle the ball as well.”

Next year’s roster is already beginning to take shape for the Irish. Yes, Dodson and Citron are coming in, but players are leaving too. Sources close to the situation told All in the Game that Alasia Hayes, Alli Campbell and Amirah Abdur-Rahim have entered the transfer portal. Blue & Gold — the Notre Dame Rivals site — also reported the transfers. Neither player started a game this past season.

Additionally, Ivey said on the Zoom call that seniors Nicole Benz, Destinee Walker and Mikayla Vaughn won’t be utilizing the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility. Benz has a job lined up in Chicago, Walker plans to explore a playing career overseas and Vaughn is entering the WNBA Draft. A 6-foot-3 forward, Vaughn averaged 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per-game this season and shot 57.3% from the floor, a mark that was sixth best in the ACC.

It remains to be seen if Notre Dame will add additional players this offseason through what is likely to be a deep transfer market. But, with its projected starting five and other players like Sam Brunelle, Anaya Peoples, Natalija Marshall and Abby Prohaska providing further depth down the bench, the Irish should be better in Ivey’s second year. Don’t expect them to miss the tournament again.

Tournament absences ended; New reign for UNC

For the ACC, it’s Virginia Tech’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006, Georgia Tech’s first since 2014, and Wake Forest’s first since 1988, when head coach Jen Hoover was a player for the Deacs.

Wake Forest’s 33-year NCAA tournament drought was the longest in the nation. That 1988 team starring Hoover and coached by Joe Sanchez was also a No. 9 seed and beat No. 8 Villanova in the first round before losing to Final Four-bound Tennessee. On Sunday against No. 8 Oklahoma State, the Deacs will try to notch their second-ever win in the tournament.

And for the 10th-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels — the last ACC team to crack the field — it’s their 28th overall appearance in the tournament, but just the second in their last six seasons and the first under second-year head coach Courtney Banghart. She led Princeton to the tournament in eight of her 12 seasons in the Ivy League.

During a Zoom call on Saturday, Banghart talked about why the sport needs programs like UNC to be great, consistently, and why it’s her mission to restore the Tar Heels’ women’s basketball team to national prominence.

Said Banghart: “This is one of the most recognizable brands internationally. As we continue to gain momentum as a sport, we need to attract new lovers and new watchers of our game. It’s really easy to fall in love with and support Carolina. No matter if you’ve never seen a women’s basketball game before, if Carolina’s on the TV, you’ll probably pay attention, right? I just think for our game, not only to retain the viewers that we have but to gain more, some of these really rich traditions and really powerful brands need to be really good – and this is one of them. I embraced that challenge in taking this job and I give a lot of credit to this group. We’ve made a lot of progress. There was a reason the job was open and so, it wasn’t all roses and daffodils and sunflowers. We had to go through some things. And the growth that our group went through last year to get us to here has been well-documented.”

With one of the nation’s best recruiting classes coming in next year, the Tar Heels seem to be headed in the right direction under Banghart.

ACC extras

  • Tiana Mangakahia has been invited to participate in the upcoming Australian National Team Camp in preparation for the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But she’ll miss the camp because of the NCAA tournament. Her Syracuse team is a No. 8 seed and plays South Dakota State on Sunday. Mangakahia led the nation in assists this season with 7.5 per-game.

  • UNC’s Janelle Bailey will not return for an extra season and will enter the WNBA Draft.

  • A source close to the situation told All in the Game that Army is casting a “wide net” to find Dave Magarity’s successor as the next women’s basketball coach at West Point. Army has reached out to a few assistant coaches at Power 5 schools, including programs in the Big Ten and ACC. Magarity has been the head coach at Army since 2006 and guided the Black Knights to four postseason appearances. He announced earlier this year that he would retire at the end of the season at the age of 71. Army finished the season 9-11 with a 6-8 mark in Patriot League play.

Read this

  • At the Washington Post, Candace Buckner on Dawn Staley: “Then, Staley, sitting beside her team, found herself doing what she had done all season. She began to speak up.”

  • Terrific read from Jenn Hatfield on a unique coaching dynamic at Louisville: “I called him Uncle Jeff and … it was just the look I got after that, just like, Oh, I can't call you that here.”

  • Kierstan Bell has been absolutely awesome this year for Florida Gulf Coast. I included her on my first team All-American ballot. At the Athletic, Lyndsey D'Arcangelo explains what she’s done at FGCU this year.

  • From Sydney Olmstead at The Next: “This is a complex issue with a lot of moving parts, but until the NCAA puts the same value into both sides of college basketball, this is going to be a long haul to equality.”

Stuff I wrote recently

Be safe. Y’all be good.

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Mitchell Northam is an award-winning journalist based in North Carolina. He grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and is a graduate of Salisbury University. He is a digital producer at WUNC, and his work has also been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, NCAA.com, the Delmarva Daily Times, Sports Illustrated, Pittsburgh Sports Now and elsewhere. He is a member of APSE, NWSLMA and USBWA, and is an AP Top 25 voter for women’s college basketball. He’s on Twitter @primetimeMitch. More of his work can be found at MuckRack.