Niele Ivey trying to keep Irish up

The first-year Notre Dame coach has had a challenging start since succeeding Naismith Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw.

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Niele Ivey and the Irish remain on the NCAA Tournament bubble after losing to Clemson in the second round of the ACC Tournament and going 8-7 in league play.

Niele Ivey and the Irish remain on the NCAA Tournament bubble after losing to Clemson in the second round of the ACC Tournament and going 8-7 in league play.

AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Following a legend is never easy.

Succeeding Naismith Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw and then going through a COVID-marred debut season on the Notre Dame sideline? That has been the nearly impossible task Niele Ivey has been forced to endure in Year 1 as coach of the inconsistent Irish (10-10).

Not that she’s looking for sympathy.

“It’s been a very challenging year,” the 43-year-old Ivey said after closing out the regular season with a 17-point home loss to fifth-ranked Louisville. “I think it’s been challenging for every coach in America, just trying to navigate through COVID. But I have an incredible staff, an incredible administration. Everyone has been so supportive.”

Seeded sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, Notre Dame blew a 10-point second-half lead and fell 68-63 to Clemson in the second round. The Irish remained on the NCAA Tournament bubble after going 8-7 in league play during a disjointed regular season.

A February flare-up cost the youthful Irish two weeks of valuable practice time as they tried to fast-track early enrollee Olivia Miles.

They went a month between home games at quiet Purcell Pavilion, normally one of the sport’s most intimidating venues for visiting teams in the pre-COVID times. Their longest winning streak of the season has been just three games.

And yet, Ivey sounded at times like a coach with designs on making a deep run into this strange month of March.

“I’m very encouraged by the way we’re playing,” Ivey said before heading to Greensboro, North Carolina. “We’re starting to play together.”

Ivey, who watched her son Jaden lead Purdue to a home win over Wisconsin on Tuesday, noted the revolving door of rotations and starting lineups she was forced to negotiate amid game cancellations and a spate of injuries in the first half of the season.

Notre Dame has had persistent issues with turnovers (16.7 per game), rebounding and defense, but the trendline had been on the upswing until 23 more giveaways in the Clemson loss. Once Miles, the New Jersey-raised point guard prodigy, reported for duty in late January, the pieces started to click into place.

Freshman forward Maddy Westbeld has been one of the few constants. The Ohio product was named ACC Rookie of the Year after averaging 14.9 points per game, then added 21 points and nine rebounds in the loss to Clemson.

“I really like the growth of the chemistry of our group with the addition of Olivia Miles, a true point guard,” Ivey said. “Every day she’s blossoming and doing something a little bit more. Just having a true point guard on the floor really opens up my offense.”

A national championship point guard for McGraw’s Irish in 2001, Ivey later played in the WNBA and spent more than a decade on McGraw’s staff. Ivey then spent one year as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Grizzlies before returning to her alma mater last spring when McGraw retired one month into the pandemic shutdown.

After making 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including back-to-back trips to the national championship in 2018-2019, the Irish suffered through a 13-18 nightmare in McGraw’s final season. Ivey knows it probably required a deep run in the ACC Tournament for the Irish to earn a ticket to the more desirable bubble in San Antonio.

“I understand where we are,” Ivey said with an eye toward Selection Monday on March 15. “Hopefully we have that opportunity.”

Regardless, Ivey intends to take the lessons she has learned in her first year at the helm and move the program forward once again. Five losses by a maximum of six points have exposed some of the inexperience in the Irish lineup and perhaps even on their sideline.

“We have our ups and downs, our highs and lows,” Ivey said. “You trust the process. I know I’m growing through this, and I know this is going to make me a better coach in the future. It couldn’t have gone any better.”

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