Irish Sports Recap – The Dog Days Are Over

It’s been a bit of a bumpy road for Notre Dame basketball these past few years. 

Since coming within a point of back-to-back national titles in 2019, Notre Dame lost all five starters to the WNBA draft, struggled through a season with a young team thrust into the spotlight too early, and bounced out of the ACC tournament in the first round. Covid hit, Muffet McGraw retired, Niele Ivey took over, and then struggled through the pandemic-induced year without a real offseason or much time for the team. Last season was better, as the Irish returned to the postseason and made the Sweet Sixteen, before crashing out in a frustrating loss to NC State. There have been glimpses of what the Irish used to be, but they haven’t strung together enough games in a row to get there yet. And questions have been there every step of the way. 

Especially after close, frustrating losses, the kind of games Notre Dame used to win routinely, questions would swirl. Thursday’s outing against Maryland was another of those kind of games where the Irish clearly didn’t play their best and lost to a good, but beatable, team because of it. And as they have, the questions came again — Is Niele Ivey the right coach? Or, bigger picture, could the Irish be the same type of program they were under McGraw? 

A scant three days later, we have our answer. 

No one, no one, pegged Notre Dame as not only beating the Huskies but beating up the Huskies. (Ok maybe a few — but they were few and far between after Maryland.) Notre Dame is usually on the receiving end of bludgeonings in this series, while their wins come in close, dramatic fashion. The last time Geno & co. played in South Bend, they soundly beat the defending national champs, a team that would go on to make the national title game. But the Huskies owned that day. While there have been cracks in UConn’s foundation the last few years — blowouts in the Final Four and last years’ title game show that excellent defense can crack the Huskies — Notre Dame hadn’t been able to beat their archrival since that almost-repeat run in 2019; or beat them at all in the regular season in almost a decade. What an excellent time to flip the script. 

At the risk of being a prisoner of the moment, as far as regular season wins go in college basketball, it doesn’t get bigger than this. It wasn’t quite the first proof-of-concept game for Ivey at Notre Dame — last year’s win over NC State and an NCAA Tournament drubbing of Oklahoma in Norman stick out as two examples of the Irish at their peak, showing flashes of a ceiling every bit as high as McGraw’s greatest teams if not even higher. But beating UConn just feels different. There’s no opponent where a victory means as much to this program as the Huskies. No, UConn isn’t *UCONN* of old these days, but they are still the measuring stick for everyone else in the sport. And for Notre Dame in particular, the Huskies have been the great nemesis, the big dog on the block keeping the Irish from breaking through time and time again. Niele getting her first win over UConn is unbelievably big for her as head coach at her alma mater. And for what it’s worth, Muffet’s first win over the Huskies was the springboard for a national title. 

Just two guards who know how to beat Yukon

It’s been a long time — too damn long — since a home crowd saw a win over UConn. Ten years, in fact. That history felt very much alive in the building Sunday afternoon, even as the Irish kept the Huskies at arm’s length. There was hesitancy to celebrate all the way to the final minutes. Too many blown leads in the series, too many Husky comebacks, too many games the Irish let slip away. Not Sunday. 

This felt less like a national announcement and more like a coming-of-age party for Irish basketball under Niele Ivey. Even as the Irish led by seventeen at the break, no one was sitting comfortably in the arena. Everyone knew the Huskies would find a way to make it close. They always do. It takes a team with poise and toughness to absorb the inevitable UConn run, and as the Huskies got it to within five, the Irish barely blinked. You could feel this team hit the gas pedal to keep UConn at bay when they pulled close — they haven’t always shown that gear over the last few seasons. That five-point cushion turned into eleven before you knew it, and it felt like this team’s young core grew up a bit. At long last, they looked like the Notre Dame teams of old that didn’t just hope or dream of beating UConn, but knowing they could. The final margin of 14 marks the biggest Notre Dame win in the rivalry since 2004. And to do it all in front of a home crowd hungry for a win over this program? For a head coach who seems like a perfect fit to show the world she can live up to the legacy she helped create? Pure catharsis. 

Purcell on Sunday was what it should always be — a women’s basketball fortress, an electric crowd feeding off the excellent play on the court and fueling it in turn so that it’s nigh on impossible to win in South Bend. There’s always a palpable excitement in the air for this game, but when Notre Dame plays as well as it did yesterday against this team, of all teams, it builds and builds and builds. It’s the kind of home environment a great program deserves. As it became clear the Huskies were toast, the building started to shift into celebration mode, an awful lot of angst over the program’s future built up since the final buzzer sounded against Baylor pouring out into a big group hug. Complete with cameos from Arike, Muffet, Natalie Achonwa, and others, it was a simply excellent afternoon for Notre Dame basketball — both where it’s been and where it’s going.

This team is starting to find its footing again, and if they find that consistent high gear… look out. But more than implications for this year, Sunday showed Notre Dame basketball isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. There will be more bumps in the road, of course. No coach ever has smooth sailing — we should know, we’ve given Geno Auriemma quite a bit of turbulence. But between what Ivey is showing more and more in game, the tenacity she can get out of her team when they need it the most, and her recruiting — very much looking forward to a senior Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron pairing with sophomores Hannah Hidalgo, Cass Prosper, and Emma Risch in the rotation — it should be clear at this point that Notre Dame will be a national force for years to come under her direction. 

With all due respect to the great city of Jacksonville, this bowl game destination for Notre Dame is so fitting for this season it hurts. In hindsight, it sure seems like this season was always headed for north Florida, doesn’t it? The matchup itself though is a fun one, if a bit scary. With two top ten wins its last two outings, South Carolina is that team that if you played it in the first round of March Madness you’d be scared out of your mind. Fortunately, bowl games aren’t knockouts, and you know the season’s ending on December 30 one way or another. But still, this is a scorching hot team coming against an Irish team that played its best football towards the end of the season but didn’t exactly go out on a high note in the Coliseum. Shane Beamer is a promising young coach that has certainly generated a fair bit of excitement around Gamecock football, which picked up steam towards the end of November. A win over Notre Dame would certainly keep that going, and meanwhile the Irish lack a quarterback and possibly their best offensive player. It isn’t exactly a signature win in the making for a coach that just ended Tennessee’s playoff hopes followed by beating his rival for the first time in seven years, but it would continue South Carolina’s forward momentum. 

It certainly was an eventful Friday for Notre Dame football on an idle week. USC did what we all knew they were going to do sooner or later and stopped playing defense, while Utah found a way to slow down the offense enough that Southern Cal couldn’t keep up. While watching a Trojan implosion is always fun, it did draw some further teeth gnashing over how the Irish didn’t manage to spark one a week sooner. Now the Trojans fall to the Cotton Bowl and a simply ~riveting~ matchup with Tulane, which could either be a very funny disaster for them if they play with marked disinterest or a ho-hum victory over a Group of Five team. Really, no bad outcomes!

But the big news was Drew Pyne entering the transfer portal, a move not all that surprising but a little shocking it came before the bowl game. It had become clear over the course of the season that Pyne, while flashing excellence at times, was simply too inconsistent to be a reliable starting quarterback at Notre Dame and was not the solution moving forward. He’s pretty much the ideal backup QB — a great teammate, a guy with gumption and grit in spades, and oh by the way he’s good enough to win you eight games and bring the season back from the brink. Notre Dame was beyond lucky to have Pyne this year, and there’s no telling what this season would have looked like without him. He’ll graduate this month and move on to a place where his talents can be maximized. All the best to a true Notre Dame guy. 

Obviously, though, Pyne’s departure leaves Notre Dame in a really tough spot for the bowl game, with Tyler Buchner’s health unclear and Steve Angeli almost certainly nowhere near ready. Freeman and Rees have a month to figure out some solution at quarterback, but the offense might be even more ground-and-pound than usual for the Gator Bowl. Will that be enough to move an SEC front? Will the defense be able to keep up with a second Lincoln Riley-coached quarterback in a row? Time will tell — but I’m not overly sanguine. The Irish have won their last two bowl games in Florida, though, so there’s a decent chance they find a way to end the season on a high note. 

No hockey this week as the Irish prep for yet another tough series against a surging Penn State squad, but there was ~plenty~ of men’s basketball action/celebration/hair pulling. Wednesday featured a totally unexpected trouncing of Michigan State, a pseudo-rivalry for men’s basketball but a marquee win against a major program regardless. The Spartans rolled into the game pretty clearly gassed from a weekend at the Phil Knight Invitational, which opened the door for the Irish, but major kudos for blowing that door wide open. Special shoutout is due to Cormac Ryan, who returned to his Alabama-crushing form from last March and hit his first six threes to headline the evening. Combined with what was probably the best defensive outing of the season to date, and it looked like the Irish might just have learned a thing or two from St. Bonaventure. 

But, as has become tragically true for men’s basketball in recent years, Mike Brey’s squad promptly turned around and blew away all the good feelings and momentum from Wednesday by losing their conference opener against a truly underwhelming Syracuse squad at home. I didn’t manage to catch the game, but suffice to say it is naturally very frustrating to immediately lose any momentum for the season and start from behind in ACC play at the same time. Hopefully better days are ahead for this experienced team as they look for a repeat berth in March Madness.

– EC

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