Notre Dame’s Kathryn Westbeld was the odd player out when Oregon decided who among the Irish would require extra defensive attention. Big mistake.
Westbeld went off for a career-high 20 points to key a second-half comeback that was instrumental in Notre Dame’s 84-74 defeat of Oregon in a Spokane Regional final on Monday.
That earned Notre Dame (33-3) a rematch against 11-time champion and unbeaten Connecticut (36-0) in the NCAA women’s college basketball national semifinals at 9:30 p.m. Friday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus (ESPN2).
Louisville (36-2) will play defending national champ Mississippi State (36-1) in Friday’s opening final four game at 7 p.m. (ESPN2). The winners will play for the national championship at 6 p.m. Monday also at Nationwide Arena (ESPN).
This is as close to a homecoming as it gets for Westbeld. She was a go-to member of Fairmont High School’s celebrated teams that played in three straight Division I state championships and won a state title in 2013.
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Chelsea Welch, the star guard on those Tim Cogan-coached Firebirds teams, was the Horizon League player of the year this season at Wright State. Makayla Waterman has endured a series of injuries that has limited her to a backup at Ohio State. She recently indicated she’ll return to the Buckeyes as a redshirt senior next season.
“It does seem like yesterday,” Westbeld reflected earlier this week while at the South Bend, Indiana, campus. “It’s definitely a bitter-sweet moment. This is a great ending-spot for me, especially coming home to Columbus. It couldn’t end any other way.”
A 6-foot-2 forward and three-year starter, Westbeld has been everything veteran Irish coach Muffet McGraw (31 seasons) had envisioned. Westbeld surpassed 1,000 career points this postseason and averages career highs of 7.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 26.5 minutes as a senior.
Notre Dame is a remarkable 135-12 in Westbeld’s four seasons. Each of those teams has won at least 33 games.
Like at Fairmont, her tough and durable inside presence is a valuable intangible. Oregon has an entire offseason to dwell on that.
“They chose me to leave open,” Westbeld said of the Ducks’ defenders. “Sometimes you have to give something up and they chose me to give up and help out on the others. I took advantage of what they gave me.”
Westbeld was money like never before. She converted 9 of 12 shots, hit both free throws, and added seven rebounds and three assists.
It was an easy call for Oregon to ignore Westbeld. A recurring ankle injury had limited her to a combined 12 points in the previous four postseason games. A similar ankle injury plagued her at Fairmont as a senior. She had ankle surgery prior to this season, then her good ankle broke down just three minutes into the tourney opener.
“At this point, there’s nothing that’s going to hold me back from me being out there with my teammates and competing for a championship,” she said.
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Notre Dame lost to UConn in the 2015 national championship when Westbeld was a freshman. Stanford upset Notre Dame the next two seasons.
Notre Dame had a great shot at upsetting UConn in early December. The Irish led by seven at halftime, but the Huskies rallied to win 80-71 at Hartford. Westbeld scored four points.
“For us to be that close and be up at the half and stay in the game with them for that long really means a lot,” she said. “That game was a lesson for us. It was a benchmark to see where we were as a team. We definitely have grown and learned a lot since then.”
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Westbeld likely will pursue pro ball after this season. She’ll graduate on time with a business degree.
She keeps up with Fairmont girls basketball because younger sister Maddy is another 6-1 budding inside factor who just completed her sophomore season. Fairmont’s program is in flux with the recent resignation of Lacy Drake as head coach.
“(Maddy is) more serious about basketball than I was in high school,” Kathryn said. “She’s definitely my best friend. I talk to her on FaceTime almost every night. She’s the person I go to with everything. She’s the closest person I have in my life. I’m really excited to see how far she gets.”