NCAA WOMEN'S TOURNAMENT: Shorthanded Irish relying on its stars as NCAA Tournament begins

Mar. 22—SOUTH BEND — For a second straight year, a key injury is leading Notre Dame's storylines as it prepares to kick off its third consecutive trip to the big dance.

Announced during the Irish's NCAA Selection Show watch party, Fighting Irish head coach Niele Ivey revealed the latest blow to its roster: the loss of junior forward Kylee Watson who tore her ACL this past week during Notre Dame's ACC Tournament championship run. She'll be forced to the sideline when 2-seeded Notre Dame (26-6) hosts 15-seeded Kent State (21-10) Saturday, March 23 (2:15 p.m., ESPN).

Injuries have plagued Ivey's fourth year coaching the Irish and this year's NCAA Tournament storylines echo those from a year ago when guard Olivia Miles hit the sideline.

"Well, we're in a time where it's just survive and advance," Ivey said. "So, no matter how many numbers you have, you have to come prepared and ready to play. Unfortunately, we had a similar situation last year... when things happen this way you can't control you just have to pivot."

Notre Dame entered as a No. 3 seed then, set to host the tournament's first and second round, but were limping in without Miles. The Irish passed both home tests before falling in the Sweet Sixteen.

Despite being a mirror image of last year's team without numbers, they aren't a team without stars. Three big ones shine the brightest in South Bend and its leadership off the court a month ago helped them keep Purcell Pavilion open as a host for the first and second rounds.

"I think the NC State game was definitely a wake-up call," junior guard Sonia Citron said about Notre Dame's last loss more than a month ago when it scored a season-low 43 points at home in the 16-point loss to the Wolfpack. "After that game our team got together and we had a meeting, we talked to each other and we were just like 'we need to figure it out because this is not how our season's gonna go.' It was after that game that we really just took the steps we needed to get back on the same page."

The player-only meeting, initiated via a group text from senior Maddy Westbeld, spurred an eight-game win streak to end the season including five consecutive ranked wins and an ACC Tournament title. The Irish, projected around the five-seed line a month ago, pushed them up to a two seed.

"We were dealing with a lot of inconsistencies in our play and obviously a really tough loss at home," Ivey said. "They kind of put a mirror to their face, I put a mirror to their face as well, and just talked about what we needed to do to fix this and get better. I thought that meeting was great and sometimes you need that redirection, refocus and I feel like they did that."

Now playing its best basketball during this last month, that hasn't stopped the Irish from trying to label themselves underdogs.

"We were on a high from the ACC Tournament but I think right now we're just getting settled and we're really just trying to stay consistent and treat it like we're the underdogs," Westbeld said.

If it might be difficult to call a No. 2 seed a home underdog, the 5-foot-6 freshman point guard in Hannah Hidalgo makes it near impossible for such a label to be placed.

The Associated Press All-American first-teamer has dazzled in her debut season and is third in the nation in points (23.3), first in steals (4.59) and 22nd in assists (5.5). Kent State head coach Todd Starkey gave a possible way to explain her energized play.

"It's not just the Hannah Hidalgo show, I mean, it's close," Starkey said before making an analogy about the guard. "She looks like a kid at recess on a sugar high. She's just buzzing all over the court and it just seems like there is three of her at times."

While a true star at the college level in her first season, the NCAA Tournament is another new environment for her to experience. Relying on the other two pieces of the three-part tandem on Ivey's team is going to be vital to avoid being the first No. 2 seed to lose it's first game of the women's tournament.

Westbeld (averaging 14.2 points and nine rebounds a contest) has quickly become a larger importance down the stretch. Matching opponents physicality around the rim has been a recent strength and the senior's ability to stretch the floor keeps other forwards on their toes.

The final piece is often the quietest. Citron is the all-around guard that feeds on both ends of the floor. Averaging over 16 points a game, it's the defense that keeps Citron as much of a need to have on the floor as any.

"I think my team is very, very smart, very experienced so they understand what's at stake as for us having a lower roster number where we can't afford to be in foul trouble," Ivey said, enforcing that with the limited numbers, keeping foul totals low is something to watch.

While concerning, playing limited numbers has been the theme of Ivey's fourth season. 15 times during the year have the Irish played with just seven or less players. If you include senior night when the bench was emptied for the final 29 seconds, that number moves the needle to half of Notre Dame's 32 games.

They're 11-5 in those games, averaging nearly 10 points less offensively (70.6) with the defense staying even with its full season average of under 62 points a contest.

Part of that stretch included the Irish playing Citron, but when the three-member team of Hidalgo, Citron and Westbeld do play, the Irish are 18-4. That, should be the number which favors the Irish come Saturday afternoon.

Notre Dame's 29th NCAA Tournament appearance begins Saturday while Kent State makes their first trip since 2002. It's the Flashes sixth appearance all-time.

For Starkey to lead Mid-American Conference champs to the program's second-ever trip to the second round, redshirt senior Katie Shumate (15 points and eight rebounds per game) needs to continue to be the team's best playmaker on a lineup that typically runs eight deep.

"Katie said it perfectly," Starkey said. "She said it's an advantage if we can actually take advantage. That would certainly be a game plan of ours. It feels like we have really good depth. It's been one of our strengths all year."

The winner of Saturday's 2:15 tipoff will get a Monday second round date with either 7-seeded Ole Miss (23-8) or 10-seeded Marquette (23-8). If the Fighting Irish advance past Saturday, they'd be playing for their third consecutive trip to the second weekend of the tournament

Reach Matt Lucas at 574-533-2151, ext. 240325, or at