No luck needed: Irish eliminate Southern Utah women from 1st NCAA Tournament

Southern Utah's Megan Jensen (3) drives as Notre Dame's KK Bransford (14) defends during the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in South Bend, Ind. (Michael Caterina, Associated Press)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The program's inaugural NCAA Tournament berth and a national-television audience on ESPN2 awaited Southern Utah women's basketball in the small college town near South Bend, Indiana, on Friday afternoon.

So did Notre Dame's crushing defense.

Maddy Westbeld poured in 20 points and five assists, and the third-seeded Fighting Irish never trailed en route to an 82-56 win over No. 14 Southern Utah at the 9,200-seat Joyce Center on the campus of Notre Dame.

The Irish also made plenty of shooting luck on St. Patrick's Day. Down All-American point guard Olivia Miles (knee), five players scored in double figures and all but one of nine active players made a basket as Notre Dame shot better than 50% from the field until the game's waning moments. Sonia Citron had 14 points and six assists, and teammate Lauren Ebo added 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Fighting Irish, who got off to a 16-0 start and never looked back.

Notre Dame matched a season high with 24 assists on 36 made field goals.

Megan Jensen, the Utah Valley transfer from Castle Dale, led Southern Utah (23-10) with 11 points and five rebounds. Former Cedar High standout Samantha Johnston added 9 points and five assists for the Thunderbirds, and Tomekia Whitman — the Idaho State transfer who carried the only NCAA Tournament experience to the squad — scored 9 and Cherita Daugherty 8 for SUU, which won Western Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles in the first season in the league.

"It's tough when your season comes to an end," said SUU coach Tracy Sanders, the WAC Coach of the Year. "I'm just so proud of this group and this team and how hard they have worked. And to do what we have done, we have made history over at Southern Utah. They have kind of set the standard and left a legacy.

"I'm just really proud of this group. Notre Dame is a great team. We knew it was going to be a tough game. We knew they were big. I'm proud of our fight. And you know, like I said, I couldn't be more proud of this group and what they have done this season."

The Fighting Irish couldn't have started much better, opening with 13-of-16 field goals in the first quarter that included a game-high 8 points on 4-of-5 shooting from Westbeld en route to a 27-10 lead.

Jensen had 5 of Southern Utah's 10 points in the opening frame as the Thunderbirds connected on just 4-of-15 shots and were outrebounded 12-2. Leading scorer Daugherty, the junior college transfer from Vancouver, Washington, who crossed the 1,000-point plateau in her SUU career, was held scoreless on 0-for-1 shooting, and Whitman went just 1-for-5 in the first quarter and didn't make that lone shot until the 1:49 mark of the opening frame.

Notre Dame made five-straight during a 10-0 run to pull away comfortably for a 43-24 halftime advantage. Westbeld had 15 points, and the Irish shot 59% from the field before the break and never looked back.

"It's tough," Sanders said. "We knew that they were going to be bigger and stronger than us. And you know, we just had to kind of settle in. You know, we needed to get some stops on the defensive end. I think they started the game with like nine out of 10 they made or something crazy like that.

"You can tell there was a little bit of nerves. Like I said, they're a great team. Transition-wise, we were not hitting shots and they were pushing the ball pretty quickly. I think we needed to buckle down and focus on the transition first, and just do our best to kind of be as physical as we could be and try to keep them out of paint and then finish it with the box out."

Johnston had 8 points off the bench to lead Southern Utah at the break, which trailed by as much as 29 before a 12-2 run to end the half down 19.

But the Thunderbirds trailed by as much as 33 points in the second half and never made a scoring run greater than 7-0 in falling to 0-1 all-time in the Big Dance.

Notre Dame will face the winner of Creighton and Mississippi State in Sunday's second round.

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