SPOKANE, Wash. -- For Notre Dame Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw, the path to the Final Four that concluded with an 84-74 win over the Oregon Ducks in Monday's regional final started on a Thursday night in January.
Hosting then-No. 6 Tennessee, Notre Dame trailed by 23 early in the second quarter. Having recently lost a fourth player to a season-ending ACL tear and being reduced to seven scholarship players, the Irish looked like they were going to add another lopsided loss to the 100-67 defeat they had suffered a week earlier at conference rival Louisville. Instead, Notre Dame outscored the Lady Vols 57-31 in the second half to win by 14.
When you've stared down a 23-point deficit and won four of the five games you've trailed at halftime, being down by six doesn't seem so daunting.
"We felt like we're in a good spot right now," McGraw said after Monday's game. "We're not playing that well, and we're only down six."
In the locker room at halftime, the Irish made a key adjustment: After getting torched by Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu for 19 points -- many of them coming on pull-up jumpers against Notre Dame's soft pick-and-roll coverage -- McGraw decided to have her post players hedge and force Ionescu away from the basket. While Ionescu and Ducks coach Kelly Graves downplayed the adjustment, McGraw thought it paid off.
"We tried to double Sabrina a little bit more, tried to get a little bit of a hedge," she explained. "I think that was a little more effective than our Plan A, B, C in the first half. We dug deep into the scouting report to go to that one.
"I thought it was as well as we've played defensively. That was the difference in the game."
Unable to find the same kind of open looks on which she had feasted before halftime, Ionescu made just one of her nine second-half shot attempts. Without Ionescu's scoring or the 3-pointers on which the Ducks rely (they came in leading the nation in 3-point percentage but shot 4-of-15 beyond the arc, including 1-of-11 after halftime), the vaunted Oregon attack fizzled. The Ducks scored just nine points in the third quarter and 28 on 38 possessions after halftime.
At the other end of the court, Notre Dame was getting scoring from an unexpected source. Senior forward Kathryn Westbeld, playing through a sprained ankle suffered in the opening round of the tournament, found herself left open by Oregon's zone defense.
"From right at the get-go, the high post was really open, midrange," Westbeld said. "So I just kind of took what they gave me. We have four great players on the floor, at the same time. You have to kind of choose something to give up. I think they chose me to kind of leave a little bit, double-team on some other people."
The team's lowest-scoring starter at 7.4 points per game, Westbeld took advantage of the open looks to score a game-high 20 points, one shy of her career high. The performance typified an Irish team that has seen all five of its starters, all of whom log heavy minutes due to injuries, play the role of hero at different times -- even during the two wins in Spokane.
Guard Arike Ogunbowale was named Most Outstanding Player of the Spokane Regional after scoring a team-high 46 points in the two victories, and fellow guard Marina Mabrey joined her on the all-regional team, thanks to her seven 3-pointers against Texas A&M on Saturday. Monday's stars were Westbeld and post player Jessica Shepard (18 points, nine rebounds). The fifth Notre Dame starter, Jackie Young, led the defensive effort against Ionescu, pulled down 13 rebounds (one shy of her career high) and handed out six assists.
"It's hard to pick an MVP," McGraw said. "You look at the whole starting unit, we couldn't do it without any of them. Certainly Arike has had a fantastic year, made a lot of All-American teams. We wouldn't be here without Jessica Shepard, without Marina Mabrey, without Jackie Young and Kathryn. And really, Coco [Kristina Nelson] and Dani [Danielle Patterson] on the bench. We've needed everybody at times this year. I think everybody has stepped up and come through for us."
The perseverance through injuries and other adversity has made this perhaps the best coaching job of the Irish's eight trips to the Final Four in McGraw's legendary career. Ultimately, Notre Dame lost to only two other teams that reached the Final Four: an eight-point loss against Connecticut (the Irish's opponent in Friday's semifinal) in Hartford and a pair of losses to Louisville, including by two points in the ACC tournament final.
After Monday's game, McGraw called the season "so rewarding" for her as a coach.
"So proud of this team," she said. "Where we came from, what we've overcome to get here, over a great Oregon team. This one's just so rewarding, because I think even though we're No. 1 seed, it's a little unexpected."
While her players might not have the luxury of other Final Four runs as comparison, they too take pride in what they've accomplished as a short-handed group.
"I'm just honestly so proud of each and every one of our players," Westbeld said. "What we've overcome, how we've stuck together through it all, through the rough times, how we've overcome everything and came out on top."
Shepard echoed the sentiment.
"Just proud of everyone in that locker room," Shepard said. "From the four that tore the ACLs that are there every day at practice, giving their best for us, to the walk-ons that come on every day at practice, practice hard against us, it's not easy. Just proud of this team. I think you look at what we do have, and that's really the key to this team. I think we're relentless. We're not going to settle for anything less than our best."
Notre Dame has played its best throughout the two months since the Tennessee game. And on Monday, that was good enough to get past the Ducks and reach the Final Four.