It ended in heartbreak for Notre Dame. Leading for nearly the entire second half against top-seeded North Carolina State in the Sweet Sixteen, the Irish just couldn’t close the game out. The Wolfpack got a steal and a go-ahead layup with just 14 seconds left — their first lead since early in the second quarter — and eliminated the Irish, who left the court in disbelief.
“Our phrase is ‘hungry for more because we tasted it,’” head Coach Niele Ivey said recently. “You can utilize a loss for the next season. So, I think it’s something that’s always going to be in the back of their heads; it gives them the opportunity to have that chip on their shoulder. They know how good they can be.”
Most of Notre Dame’s young core will return this year, as they will look to improve on last season’s performance and perhaps even return to the Final Four for the 10th time. Ivey helped guide Notre Dame to each of its previous Final Four appearances — two as a player, including the 2001 national championship, and seven as an assistant coach. Since she took over as head coach, succeeding the legendary Muffett McGraw in 2020, Ivey has tried to impart that experience on her players.
“You walk into this arena, you see two national championship banners, you see the Ring of Honor,” she said. “In the practice facility, you see nine Final Four logos, so you hear about it, you see it.”
Ivey has brought in former players to talk to the team, including Ruth Riley and Skylar Diggins-Smith. Yet she knows that ultimately success must come from experience: “You have to go through it.”
Notre Dame’s success last year was remarkable considering that they were led by two freshmen, Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron. Miles was named to the All-ACC first team after pacing the Irish in scoring, assists and steals. Citron was named ACC Rookie of the Year after averaging 11.8 points and 6.6 rebounds.
Miles was ineligible for the award because she played six games the previous year as an early enrollee. “(Citron) is a jack of all trades,” Ivey said. “I’m going to force her to score a little bit more. She’s very unselfish which I think is a great attribute to have, but with this team I need her to step up in scoring.”
The loss of Maya Dodson — a second round pick in the WNBA draft — and Sam Brunelle — who transferred to Virginia — among others, will hurt the Irish, but they bring back plenty of veteran leadership, including junior Maddy Westbeld and fifth-year senior Dara Mabrey.
Westbeld spent part of the off-season representing team USA at the 3x3 U23 National League in the Dominican Republic. “I’m really excited about Maddy,” Ivey said, “Having another year under her belt, I think she’s going to have another fantastic season.”
The Irish added several players who will look to make an immediate impact, including transfers Kylee Watson, Jenna Brown, and Lauren Ebo, alongside four-star recruit KK Bransford.
“They have incredible chemistry off the court, and I think that’s always going to translate on the court,” Ivey said of the team. “I’m always pulling for more, I’m always trying to push them beyond what they think they can do, so if they think we’re there, we’re not even close to being there.”
Watson, a 6-foot-4-inch junior transfer from Oregon, will likely slide into the role that Dodson played for the Irish last year, a defensive stalwart and efficient rebounder. “She’s a difference maker,” Ivey said. “She brings what we lost with Maya, her athleticism (and) her ability to run the floor.”
Ebo will likely fill a similar role. The 6-foot-4-inch Texas transfer will provide much-needed front court depth, as Notre Dame did not have a reliable backup center when Dodson came off the court.
Expectations are certainly high for the Irish this year, as they enter the season ranked No. 9 nationally and are expected to challenge for the ACC title and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament come March. Yet the ACC remains one of the toughest conferences in women’s college basketball. Five teams are ranked in the preseason poll, including two teams who were No. 1 seeds in last year’s tournament, North Carolina State and Louisville.
This mix of rising young talent, returning veteran leadership and talented newcomers has all the tools necessary to continue to improve and become one of the best teams in the country. But there’s only one goal in mind. “You think of Notre Dame, you think of Final Four,” Ivey said.
The rebuild appears to be over. After five years away from the “Big Dance,” Notre Dame came within two bad minutes of a Sweet Sixteen appearance last season. With five (five!) fifth-year players returning, head coach Mike Brey will lead perhaps America’s most experienced team when the Irish officially tip off against Radford on Nov. 10.
The Irish qualified for the tournament almost every year from 2007-2017, including two consecutive Elite Eight appearances in 2015 and 2016. However, from 2018-2021 the Irish missed three consecutive NCAA Tournaments and would have needed to win the ACC Tournament to make the canceled 2020 edition. The Irish posted losing records in two of those seasons. Last season, though, Notre Dame squeaked into the tournament as a No. 11 seed and then decided to make some noise. The Irish dramatically advanced in the First Four in double-overtime over Rutgers before knocking off number No. 6 seed Alabama in the first round and losing to No. 3 seed Texas Tech by only six points in the second round.
This year, the Irish seem poised to return to March Madness. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Irish as one of the last four teams to qualify for the tournament without having to play a play-in game. Lunardi currently has Notre Dame sitting as the No. 10 seed in the East Region.
Notre Dame was picked to finish sixth in the ACC Preseason Poll, behind North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Miami and Florida State.
Notre Dame’s breakthrough season last year came about largely because of star Blake Wesley. Wesley, a four-star recruit out of South Bend’s Riley High School, became Notre Dame’s first “one-and-done” after being drafted twenty-fifth in the 2022 NBA Draft. He was also the first player from a South Bend public school to sign with the Irish since 1985. Wesley was Notre Dame’s top scorer last year, averaging 14.4 points per game.
Fortunately, the Irish have someone ranked even higher coming ranked player in his class in the ESPN 100, Starling is the highest-ranked Notre Dame recruit since ESPN’s recruiting database began in 2007. He is expected to lead the team to another NCAA tournament and open a new era of dominance for Notre Dame Men’s Basketball.
At 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs, Starling is physically ready to break into the college game. Brey said that Starling will benefit from having a group of experienced teammates around him. “He’s really easy to play with,” Brey said after the team’s first practice, according to a video posted by Irish Sports Daily. “What I’ve been so impressed with is his passing. I knew he could pass, I didn’t think he could pass as well as he’s passing and seeing the floor. He certainly can score.”
Starling is joined by two highly touted forwards, Ven-Allen Lubin and Dom Campbell. Lubin was a four-star recruit and ESPN’s sixty-ninth ranked player in the country, with Campbell ranked 120th, according to 247 Sports. Together, they could fill an important role on the team this year: Notre Dame only has two returning forwards — Nate Laszewski and Matt Zona. The addition of two talented players will help Notre Dame on both offense and defense, enabling them to score more effectively in the post and defend the lane.
Notre Dame’s unique blend of talented newcomers and experienced, veteran leadership puts the Irish in a position to compete for both a spot in the NCAA tournament and an outside chance at an ACC championship after they finished second in the conference a year ago. The Irish return three fifth-year starters — Laszewski, Cormac Ryan and Dane Goodwin — whose skills and experience will complement the talented rookies and give Irish fans plenty to look forward to this season.