When it comes to tournament play, Notre Dame is a quite familiar with how the process works. What they are unfamiliar with is playing with a short bench. Coming into the post season the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are indeed playing with a short bench. They are playing with just 7 scholarship players. But, the Irish have not let that hold them back from succeeding. Friday afternoon, the number one-seeded Fighting Irish took on number sixteen, California State University – Northridge (CSUN), out of the Big West Conference. The Matadors came into tournament play on the heels of winning the Big West Conference.
Notre Dame opened up slow against the Matadors. Channon Fluker of CSUN opened up with the first points of the game. Tessa Boagni got on the board early as well. Two quick three pointers, gave the Matadors a 6-0 run to open the first quarter. A rapid change of events occurred at the 6:51 mark in the first quarter. Kathryn Westbeld went down with an ankle injury on the defensive side of the ball. Coach McGraw on the Westbeld injury, “she will get an x-ray on Saturday, we will know more then. It’s the other one.” Referring to the right ankle injury last season. After the injury, Jessica Shepard scored on a pair of lay-ups, to bring the Irish back even at eight. There are moments in a season that set a team up for the post season. Playing short all season, Notre Dame knew how to respond.
Notre Dame’s pressure defense forced eight turnovers in the first quarter alone. CSUN tried to work through the pressure of the Fighting Irish Defense defense. While the fastball movement can work, it can’t lead to turnovers. The defense wasn’t the only strength for the Irish, their offense wasn’t so bad either. The Irish scored 23 points on 8-18 from the field. The largest lead of the first quarter was nine points with 1:19 remaining.
The Irish know when to put the throttle down and how to open up a lead. The team came alive and started playing the “you’re not getting back in this game” kind of basketball. Shepard was determined to step up and be one of those players that make a difference. Shepard did just that and stepped up with eight points in the paint. Adding to the excitement, was the cardiac kid Marina Mabrey. Mabrey was a perfect three for three. She was not being denied what was hers. Defensively, Notre Dame swiped seven defensive rebounds. This team does not let adversity rule their final outcome. Fluker, on the other hand eluded the Irish. Scoring ten of the sixteen points for the Matadors. The Irish went on to take a 55-32 lead into the locker room. Coach McGraw said that “the second quarter we played as well as we played all year.”
The Matadors came out in the third quarter with something to prove. Coming out and relying on Fluker and Tessa Boagni to lead the way. Boagni contributed 13 points, while Fluker contributed six points as well. Coach McGraw commented on Fluker’s play “everything we talked about trying to stop Fluker, she just went to town on us.” Offensively for the Irish, Marina Mabrey continued to rain down the three-pointers. Mabrey drained three more from deep range to effort the Irish to a 34-point lead late in the quarter. Arike Ogunbowale cannot be forgotten. She is the General on the floor. Ogunbowale’s emotion is the catalyst for this team. Arike contributed 6 points of her own.
The onset of the fourth quarter saw Notre Dame solve the mystery of Fluker. The Irish defense silenced the red-hot Junior and held her to just two points. With the game in hand, Coach McGraw went to her bench and brought in at different points. Kaitlin Cole, Maureen Butler and Nicole Benz; the trio of walk-ons currently on the Irish roster. These three got the love of the team as well as the fans. Cole, who is not afraid to shoot, put a three pointer in that brought Purcell Pavilion alive. Nicole Benz was given the ball on a couple plays late in the quarter, Benz appeared to be a bit nervous and passed on taking a shot despite the encouragement from those inside Purcell Pavilion. Despite losing the fourth quarter, the Irish defeat the Matadors 99-81.
The three players that took command of the game were Ogunbowale, Shepard and Mabrey. Combined they scored 85 of the 99 points the Irish put up on the board. Ogunbowale led the way with 30 points and 5 defensive rebounds. Shepard was next with 24 points and 10 rebounds in her first NCAA tournament game. Mabrey was almost unstoppable from three-point range. Mabrey was 6-8 from behind the arc. Senior Tessa Boagni completed her career with 23 points and 13 rebounds. Channon Fluker had an incredible 25 points and 11 rebounds. Destiny Brooks, a Freshman, had a silent 24 points on 8-13 from beyond the arc.
Coach Jason Flowers of the Matadors addressed the media after the contest with a few remarks. “First off, hats off to Notre Dame. Obviously they are a really good basketball team. They are 30-3 on the season and the number one seed for a reason. I am extremely proud of our young women for competing, kinda showing people who they are. Obviously adversity showed up as the face of a real good basketball team. Our young women didn’t sulk, they didn’t complain, they should true character.”
Notre Dame will face-off against Villanova, an old Big East foe, on Sunday evening at Purcell Pavilion.
Cheers!! GO IRISH!!