SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Around the Notre Dame locker room, Kathryn Westbeld is known as “The Glue” because she does a little bit of everything for Muffet McGraw’s Irish.
By halftime of Sunday’s second-round women’s NCAA Tournament game against pesky Villanova, a visibly angry McGraw and Westbeld, watching with a sprained left ankle, had seen enough.
Enter “Super Glue.” Exit Villanova as the Irish ran away for a 98-72 victory that sent them into regional semifinals for the ninth straight season.
“She changed the course of the game,” McGraw said after 31-3 Notre Dame, which had struggled just to get a 45-45 halftime tie against the outside-shooting Wildcats (23-9), outscored them 53-27 in the second half. “I thought we defended a lot better in the second half and with Kathryn we’re a very different team.”
Jessica Shepard had her fourth straight double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds to lead Notre Dame. Arike Ogunbowale and Jackie Young had 24 points each and Marina Mabrey added 15 for the Irish (31-3), who won their 25th straight game at Purcell Pavilion.
In 16 minutes, Westbeld scored just two points and had six rebounds but she left to a standing ovation and got a heartfelt hug from her coach, both of them fighting back tears as they realized it was Westbeld’s last game on her home court.
“She was in a boot before the game,” McGraw said. “I thought it was a motivating and inspiring moment for the team.”
Westbeld turned her ankle early in Notre Dame’s 99-81 first-round victory Friday against Cal State Fullerton and was listed by McGraw as a game-time decision. She was dressed for pregame warmups but clearly struggling, so McGraw started Kristina Nelson and tried freshman Danielle Patterson before using sophomore walk-on Kaitlin Cole, whose offensive rebound and layup had tied the game at halftime, 45-45.
“It wasn’t as bad as last year, thank goodness,” said Westbeld, who was slow to return this season after having surgery on her right ankle last April. “I had treatment 2-3 times Friday and 10 times over the next 24 hours. I kept it elevated as much as possible. I didn’t know if I would play at all; I was on the edge of my seat the whole first half.”
Using the juice provided by Westbeld’s return, the Irish started the third quarter with a 12-3 run and outscored the Wildcats by a 28-8 margin for a commanding 73-53 lead after three quarters to move into next Saturday’s regional semifinal at Spokane, Wash., against 14th-ranked Texas A&M.
Jannah Tucker led Villanova with 19 points, Kelly Jekot added 16 and Adrianna Hahn had 11 for Villanova, which missed all five 3-pointers it took in the second half after hitting 10 of 15 in the first 20 minutes.
“We lost our focus at the start of the second half,” Villanova coach Harry Perretta said. “Notre Dame had a lot to do with it. (Westbeld) did a great job of coming in and affecting the game. They were able to play a little smaller, which we were taking advantage of in the first half.”
McGraw, whose friendship with Perretta goes back 40 years when he took over the Villanova program, started her team in a man-to-man defense after primarily playing zone since their 100-67 loss to Louisville on Jan. 11. But Villanova quickly solved it, with Jekot scoring seven points by dashing past the slower Shepard for layups, and Nelson was having trouble keeping up with the smaller, quicker Wildcats as well.
Villanova: The Wildcats, who made 16 of the 38 3-pointers they attempted in Friday’s 81-74 overtime victory against South Dakota State, kept right on shooting against the Irish, making 10 of the 15 in the first 20 minutes that ended in a 45-45 tie. They missed all five they took in the second half.
Notre Dame: The inspirational play of Westbeld, who had two points and six rebounds in 16 minutes of the second half as Notre Dame pulled away from a 45-45 halftime tie with a 28-8 third quarter.
“Her presence on the court calms everybody else,” Mabrey said. “She came into the game and reminded us that this isn’t how we play. She reminded us that we are going to play defense.”
Notre Dame: A Sweet 16 appearance Saturday at Spokane, Wash., against No. 14 Texas A&M, which owns a 2-1 mark against the Irish, including that 76-70 victory in the 2011 championship game at Indianapolis. Notre Dame won the last meeting 83-74 on Dec. 21, 2012 at the World Vision Classic in Las Vegas, Nev.