Notre Dame women head to Sweet Sixteen despite more injuries
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Hearing "Notre Dame" and "Final Four" in the same sentence has become pretty common, but lately it has been a tougher task to accomplish for the Irish.
This weekend's Sweet Sixteen pits Notre Dame against a familiar NCAA Tournament foe when they meet Texas A&M on Saturday.
"They have a couple of good three-point shooters, a good inside game," said head coach Muffet McGraw. "A challenge for us. We kind of owe them for that 2011 championship game too."
While the road may be tough, the number-one-seeded Irish could very well make a return to the Final Four after this weekend. After five straight appearances, Notre Dame has missed the past two. While the accomplishment is one they expect, this year's possibility still leaves McGraw somewhat stunned.
"To look at us in the Sweet 16, I feel really different than I do in other years when we've been a number one seed," she said. "I feel like we're overachieving every single game. I'm trying to really enjoy the experience of this one because it's been so rewarding."
It's rewarding because of the constant injuries this team has battled throughout the season, including the now-famous four players lost to ACL injuries.
The latest, though, may be senior leader Kathryn Westbeld, who suffered an ankle injury against 16-seed Cal State Northridge in the first round.
While she returned to spark an emotional second half in the second round victory against nine-seed Villanova, Westbeld's status is once again uncertain. She has not practiced this week, and is still mostly utilizing a walking boot.
Still, with so many talented players on the court, the Irish expect the star junior class to make up for any lost leadership.
"I need to be a little more vocal this week," said Marina Mabrey, who has yet to experience the Final Four. "Kat usually plays a big role in that also. [We're] just focusing on what we have and we just need to play our game."
"We've been doing that all season though with being vocal and leading by example," said All-American guard Arike Ogunbowale. "We're going to try to do that more, now that another of our leaders is hurt. Nobody's going to feel sorry for us, so we can't feel sorry for ourselves."
Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the Irish are focusing on motivation - particularly the memories of falling on this weekend the past two seasons.
"We haven't been to the Final Four in a couple years," said Ogunbowale, "so I think we're really hungry for it."
If Notre Dame can get past Texas A&M at 4 p.m. Saturday, a meeting awaits with the winner of Central Michigan and second-seeded Oregon.