Senior Westbeld sparks Fighting Irish

NOTRE DAME — It was not exactly Willis Reed limping off the bench for the New York Knicks in the NBA finals, but when senior Kathryn Westbeld took the floor for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team in the second half Sunday night, it might as well have been.

The Fighting Irish were deadlocked with pesky Villanova at halftime 45-45.

Notre Dame had been unable to shake off the Wildcats, nor were they able to slow down their outside shooting.

Using the shot of energy from Westbeld’s appearance on the courts, the Fighting Irish outscored Villanova 43-27 in the second half to defeat the Wildcats 98-72 to advance to the “Sweet 16” in Spokane, Washington for the regional semifinals against No. 4-ranked Texas A&M.

Westbeld, who injured her ankle in the opening minutes of Friday night’s opening round game, gave the Fighting Irish the boost they needed.

Notre Dame (31-3) opened the second half on a 14-3 run and finished the third quarter outscoring the Wildcats 28-8.

Notre Dame was never challenged after that as it advances to its ninth consecutive “Sweet 16” and the program’s 16th appearance overall.

“We obviously defended a lot better in the second half,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “We were very excited to have Kat available for the second half and change the course of the game. We’re just a very different team with her on the floor. Jess was just unstoppable inside. Our game plan was to go inside and she did everything we needed her to do.”

Jessica Shepard, the transfer from Nebraska, turned in a double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds. Jackie Young scored a career-high 24 points and finished one rebound shy of a double-double with nine.

Arike Ogunbowale made it two straight NCAA tournament games for Notre Dame with three players with 20 or more points as she finished with 24 points and eight rebounds.

McGraw was critical of her team’s defense in the opening round victory over Cal State Northridge and was not very happy with the first-half effort as Villanova connected on 10-of-15 3-point attempts, which allowed the Wildcats to stay in the game.

The Fighting Irish held Villanova without a 3-pointer in the second half and only allowed five attempts from beyond the arc.

Villanova (29-3) was led by Jannah Tucker’s 19 points. Kelly Jekot added 16.

Notre Dame and Texas A&M will square off in Spokane at either 4 or 6:30 p.m.

It will be a rematch of the 2011 national championship game, which the Aggies won 76-70 in Indianapolis.

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