Notre Dame Women’s Basketball – A Primer

Hi there! The end of football season got you down? Looking ahead to the long, dark winter months with only the occasional weekday bowl game to look forward to? Well fear no more! Have I got the college sports cure for you!

I’d like to introduce you to the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, a source of mostly tremendous amounts of joy and the occasional bit of frustration (but that’s what sports are for, aren’t they?). If you haven’t had the pleasure, welcome! Stick around a while — but fair warning, it is quite difficult to escape this team’s magnetic pull. If you’ve been here before, I hope this captures just a bit of what you love about this team. Everyone’s a fan for their own reasons, and these are some of mine. 

They say converts are the most zealous followers, and you can count me as a convert. I’ll confess to not really following the women’s team before my freshman year, but that had far more to do with not being a basketball fan than anything else. I had never really payed attention to the sport, outside of what a young kid gleans through cultural osmosis — Michael Jordan was pretty good, they say. I went to a few high school games through pep band, and maybe occasionally flicked on an ND game or March Madness, but it was never really my cup of tea. Then I found this team, and wouldn’t you know it this basketball thing is kinda rad, actually. This program has that kind of effect. 

If you’re a Notre Dame fan, frankly, why aren’t you following women’s basketball? Outside of our ever-amazing fencing squad, they are the most successful sport at Notre Dame this century, staking a claim to be a blue-blood in the still relatively young NCAA-sponsored version of women’s basketball. Only about four programs can claim more success than them, and almost everyone else in the sport is looking up at Notre Dame. If you are frustrated by football stumbling to another unfulfilling season or hockey’s struggle to climb the national mountain or *shudder* you watch the men’s basketball team, it is unbelievably cathartic to watch the women’s team just go out and absolutely truck people on a regular basis. If you are an Irish fan, you owe it to yourself to watch. 

But this post isn’t pitched at Notre Dame fans. It’s pitched at you, random reader on the Internet. You should follow this team. Even if you don’t think you like basketball. This is why you should be a Notre Dame women’s basketball fan. 

I could start with a bit of history, but the present is so exciting we don’t have to talk about the program’s very glorious history to get you on board. Plus, since I’m asking you to follow this team right now, I should start with the team right now — we’ll get to history later. 

First of all, the Irish have possibly the most fun player in the country to watch in point guard Olivia Miles. Miles is an electric, fearless passer, with an uncanny ability to either find an open woman or throw her open. The number of cross-court, barely-a-look passes she not only has the gumption to take but make is off the charts. When she does call her own number, she’s a dynamite scorer, able to drive to the hoop or knock down a three with equal pizazz. She’s a double-double machine with her scores and assists, but is also a good enough rebounder that she’s a legit triple-double threat more often than not. Olivia drops jaws every time she touches a basketball. She also valiantly represents those of us in the bespectacled community, playing with a pair of goggles that give her maybe the most distinctive appearance of any college star. How the woman doesn’t have a massive optometry NIL deal is beyond me. And oh did I mention she’s a sophomore? Yep, you get at least two and possibly three seasons with her as your point guard. 

Making glasses cool since 2020

The whole roster is a delight actually. Miles’ partner in crime in the backcourt, Sonia Citron, is a do-everything kind of player with a nose for the ball that can’t be taught and an ability to suddenly take over games out of absolutely nowhere. They’re joined by super-senior Dara Mabrey, the youngest of a blue blood ND basketball family who just so happens to lead both her sisters (one of whom is her coach!) in three-pointers. Speaking of younger siblings, junior forward Maddy Westbeld has post size and guard skills, making her a matchup nightmare anywhere on the court. Throw in two frontcourt transfers in Lauren Ebo and Kylee Watson who can score oodles of points down low, and promising young freshman guard KK Bransford who plays like she was shot out of a cannon, and you no matter what you like to see on a basketball court, this team can deliver. 

It also doesn’t hurt that their coach is kind of a badass. Niele Ivey is as blue and gold as the come, a dyed-in-the-wool Golden Domer that lead the Irish to their first national title as a player. She has done it all at Notre Dame — star point guard, assistant coach, and now the head woman. St. Louis born, Ivey overcame injury to come back and lead her team to a championship before heading to the WNBA. As a coach, she lifted the Irish to seven Final Fours and a second championship.

And if you recognize that last name? From the young NBA season, or maybe men’s college basketball? Yes, she is Jaden Ivey’s mom — Niele raised her son as a single mom while competing as a professional athlete and later as a rising star coach. That might be the most badass thing in the world, quite honestly. As a coach, Niele learned all the ins and outs of running a championship program from the godmother of Notre Dame basketball, Muffet McGraw, enhancing and deepening her already prolific knowledge of the game to the point where she became one of a handful of women to coach in the NBA. Niele was the natural choice to take over the program when McGraw retired and promptly got the program going again. 

I wouldn’t pick a fight with Niele Ivey, just sayin’ — though she might just give you a hug

Ivey’s personal determination and drive to success are an example of what this program is all about. Notre Dame plays with an edge and a will to win that few programs can match. Often the stories in sports that resonate the most are those where the team that wants it the most wins , and it helps if no one expects them to get over the finish line. That team is Notre Dame. Take the last national title team, for instance — they won it all by basically refusing to roll over when everyone expected them to and no one would have blamed them for doing so. But they never went away, turned their expected weaknesses into strengths, and lo and behold, they were the last team standing. That’s this program. They aren’t perfect — this current version could use a little bit of defensive work, and are prone to occasional cold stretches. But at their best? Man, they are good. Rip-your-soul-out good. 

Two national titles, nine Final Fours, over a thousand wins, and a boatload of conference titles are just some of the many accomplishments of this team. All-Americans, WNBA draftees, Olympic Gold Medalists… count Irish basketball players among the ranks of them all. Notre Dame is one of the most successful programs in the country, but they aren’t so successful that rooting for them feels like bandwagoning. The Irish’s second national title, in 2018, is one of the most remarkable runs ever accomplished in March Madness, capped with a frankly ridiculous buzzer beater and Notre Dame’s star gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated in a huge moment for women’s basketball and college sports as a whole. But that’s just the icing on the cake of a long and decorated history. That being said, they aren’t the dominant power — not by a long shot. Almost everyone in the country wishes they were Notre Dame, but a few that have more laurels to rest on. 

Speaking of… allow me to introduce you to the Connecticut Huskies. Aka the Death Star, aka the Evil Empire, aka Attila the Hun. UConn is unbelievably good. Like, literally, it’s almost incomprehensible. It would make for an automatic rejection from Hollywood if you presented a script of a team with this kind of dominance. They once went three years without losing one game. The last time they missed a Final Four was in the George W. Bush administration. They’ve won eleven national titles in a quarter-century. They played in the American Athletic Conference for seven years and lost zero games. Most years, its been them or the field for the national title. They are the bully’s bully, the boss’ boss, the basketball equivalent of Thanos. Led by a head coach with more wins than most programs and a seemingly endless series of star players, UConn will take your lunch money and eat you for breakfast, and expect you to thank them for the pleasure. You know that team that always beats your team in your favorite sport? UConn’s them, but better. They are Alabama football, the New England Patriots, the New York Yankees, the LA Lakers, Manchester United, your rival high school from the wealthier part of town, all rolled into one. They are an all time sports villain. 

“Dynasty” doesn’t quite capture UConn

So why do I bring them up the Huskies in an article about Notre Dame women’s basketball? Well, they just so happen to be Notre Dame’s biggest rival. The Irish and the Huskies shared a conference for the better part of their history, which meant they played every year, usually several times. So yeah, UConn being that good? Meant a lot of beating up on Notre Dame. Until, suddenly, it didn’t. Notre Dame never quite turned the tables in the series, but they have managed to become the biggest thorn in the Huskies’ side. Not only do they have more wins against UConn than anyone else in the country, for a while they had more wins in the past decade than the rest of the country combined. And when the lights are brightest? It’s the Irish who have the edge. They are the only program to have played UConn multiple times in the NCAA Tournament to muster a winning record against them — 5-3. (Here I feel obligated to mention that the Irish are 5-0 in March Madness against UConn sans Breanna Stewart, who is probably the greatest college player of all time.) No one’s ended more Husky seasons. For a program that expects to win the national title each year, that kind of stuff gets under your skin. And with how much they take shots at Notre Dame despite having nine more national titles and a bevy more head-to-head wins, get under it we have. Sports fans love a giant killer — if you want to slay the titan that is UConn, your best shot is Notre Dame. 

So we’ve got a young, exciting roster, a coach with the heart and experience of a champion, a program that thrives on toughness with a glorious but not gaudy history, and an archrival that is the enemy of everyone in the sport. I ask you, sports fans — this sound like you? I bet it is. This team is everything you could want in a sports fandom. If you’re jumping in to women’s college basketball, this is the team for you. Even if you’re not keen on basketball, like little old freshman me, give it a shot. They’ll suprise you. 

If I’ve convinced you, you’ve picked a great week to jump onboard. The Irish face their first real tough tests with a top-20 team in Maryland coming to town on Thursday, followed by the greatest rivalry in college basketball as the Huskies return to South Bend for the first time in four years on Sunday afternoon. Tune in — it may not be the Final Four, but Notre Dame-UConn just feels big. And, if there’s a little bit of Irish magic in the air, your new team might just slay a dragon.

– EC

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