Column: Need a March Madness bandwagon? Consider Notre Dame women's basketball

Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey has one of the best perspectives in the nation.

There might not be another team in America that had every reason to shake its fist at the heavens and curse any metaphorical basketball gods.

Ivey, instead, reflects on what she has. That’s a Sweet Sixteen team that has its best years ahead of it.

"We've been through a lot this season," Ivey said. "We've had a lot of highs and lows, a lot of adversity, and to see this group just find a way to come together to persevere through all of our adversity is something special."

The Irish should be Final Four contenders as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But, a question mark hangs around a team that’s missing key players. They’re without star guard Olivia Miles and lost starting forward Kylee Watson to a torn ACL in the ACC Tournament.

Still, the Irish keep winning, with their latest conquest coming over Ole Miss 71-56 in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

This is why Notre Dame is one of the best March Madness stories this year among all Chicago-area teams.

The Irish are by far the best story in college basketball in the Chicagoland area. Northwestern’s run ended against juggernaut UConn. No other Illinois team made the tournament in the women’s tournament, either.

Illinois men have made the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2005, but their run is marred by allegations against star guard Terrence Shannon Jr., who successfully sued to get his suspension lifted and has a trial for sexual assault allegations scheduled for well after the NCAA Tournament ends.

See the Irish for what they are: a short-handed group that believes it can win, and is playing its best basketball at the right time.

The short-handed Irish seemingly get better every game. They defy March stereotypes and don’t look back. 

The Irish have won 10 straight dating back to mid-February. Notre Dame’s last loss came at the hands of NC State at home 59-43. Since that loss, ND beat Louisville twice, Virginia Tech twice and earned vengeance over NC State 55-51 in the ACC Tournament Championship game.

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - MARCH 25: Hannah Hidalgo #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates at the half with a 17 point lead over the Ole Miss Rebels during the second round of the 2024 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament held at Purcell Pavilion on

That kind of success instills confidence, and that materialized in the Irish’s win over Ole Miss. 

"At this point, anything can happen in March," Ivey said. "I wanted to be the aggressor, and I was really proud of this group of having the confidence to do that."

March begets basketball legends. Notre Dame knows this all too well.

Ruth Riley’s game-tying shot and two game-winning free throws delivered the Irish a national title over Purdue. Skylar Diggins-Smith brought the Irish to two-straight national title game appearances. Arike Ogunbowale hit not one, but two buzzer beaters in the 2018 Final Four: One felled Connecticut and the other won a national championship over Mississippi State.

This Irish team seemingly passes its star baton to whoever’s time it is.

Hannah Hidalgo, Maddy Westbeld and Sonia Citron can all carry the torch. Hidalgo, a freshman that’s undoubtedly one of the future faces of college basketball, was the best player on the court against Ole Miss.

All 5-foot-6 of the freshman went through the Rebels, and not around or over. She scored 19 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished four assists and recorded four steals. Westbeld led all Irish players with a 20-point outing.

Once the star starts shining, the rest of the team follows suit.

From there, Anna DeWolf, KK Bransford, Natalija Marshall and Becky Obinma all earned praise from Westbeld. On a team that doesn’t have the luxury to go eight or nine deep as other teams in March can, Notre Dame has gotten the most out of what it has.

"Nat, AD, KK coming in, Becky, I think everybody just feeds off of that," Westbeld said. "When they see that we are locked in and we are focused, we're there to play, we're there to compete. I think everybody, they come to play, too. They set the tone, too."

Westbeld talked about setting that tone, which was established long before the tournament in a player-only meeting.

"We just needed to make sure we were all on the same page," Westbeld said. "We know what this name on our chest means, and I think we just needed like a reminder of what that was."

What does that name on their chest mean? 

"It's grit, it's toughness," Westbeld said. "It's the little things that we need to do, and it started with practice. It was just everybody being a little bit tougher in practice and just setting the tone, and I think we all just got on the same page since then. It took everybody from top to bottom."

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - MARCH 25: The Notre Dame Fighting Irish stand together on the court after defeating the Ole Miss Rebels in the second round of the 2024 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament held at Purcell Pavilion on March 25, 2024 in South Bend,

Notre Dame has its work cut out for it.

Oregon State is next in the Sweet Sixteen, a team that went eight-deep in a win over Nebraska and boasts 6-foot-2 All-Pac-12 forward Raegan Beers.

The team is ready for its coming challenges, however. Even though she’s not even one full season through her college basketball career, Hidalgo still says it’s about believing.

"When it's win or go home and we're getting so far in the tournament, it’s just having faith," Hidalgo said. "Just putting our trust in God even when all odds are against us with our injuries and being in foul trouble and not having so many players. Just having complete trust in God, and that's really all we can do."

Belief is what takes teams far in March, and it’s hard to believe Notre Dame should be doubted at this point.

That leads to the team’s third-consecutive Sweet Sixteen. Notre Dame is currently favored against Oregon State, too.

If you’re still looking for a team’s bandwagon to hitch on to, look no further than South Bend. Next year, Watson and Miles will be back with this group that includes Hidalgo and Citron. 

The Irish have earned your attention now, and they'll keep it later, but don't overlook the run they're on.

"The last six weeks have just been magical with this group. The way that we're coming together, being able to accomplish going back to the third consecutive Sweet 16, which is not easy, is just phenomenal," Ivey said. "Excited to dance, excited to go to Albany, and again, super grateful."


Women's College Basketball odds: Caitlin Clark, Iowa favorites to win Big Ten tourney

Before the madness of March reaches its boiling point, bettors can dive into the odds for an incredibly exciting slate of women's college basketball conference tournament odds.