Sweet 16 matchup is personal for former Fairmont teammates Westbeld, Waterman

Ohio State University redshirt sophomore Makayla Waterman is a top sub. OSU PHOTO

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Ohio State University redshirt sophomore Makayla Waterman is a top sub. OSU PHOTO

Not much has changed for best friends Makayla Waterman and Kathryn Westbeld. They still roll their eyes about school assignments and laugh like the elementary chums they once were.

But now their preferred communication is texting, Instagram or Snapchat. They’re also just as tight with former Fairmont High School basketball teammates Alona Skipper and Chelsea Welch.

“We talk all the time,” Waterman said this week. “We’re actually best friends. Me, Kathryn, Alona and Chelsea, we all still have a group chat and we text every day. It’ll be fun to see Kathryn again. We just feel we’re four people to be blessed in the situations we’re in.”

For Waterman (Ohio State University) and Westbeld (Notre Dame), that would be Friday’s matchup of the Buckeyes (28-6) vs. the Irish (32-3) in the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament Sweet 16 at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena in Lexington (7 p.m., ESPN). That’s the only subject off limits between the four.

“There’s a lot more to talk about than just basketball,” Westbeld said. “Pretty much the only thing we’ve mentioned about the game is getting our other friends tickets.”

All four were starters on Fairmont's 2013 Division I state championship team. A senior on that team, Welch played a season at Pitt before transferring to Wright State and becoming the Raiders' leading scorer this season. Skipper, the mad bomber of those great Fairmont teams for coach Tim Cogan, played at Sinclair.

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Waterman and Westbeld, both 6 feet 1, were four-year starters at Fairmont and played in three straight D-I state title games. Princeton’s Kelsey Mitchell, now an All-American teammate of Waterman’s at Ohio State, ended Fairmont’s run of four straight final fours in a 2014 regional semi.

It appeared the best was yet to come at the next level for the former Firebirds. Westbeld, a top Irish sub as a freshman, has started the last two seasons and averages 8.4 points and 5.1 rebounds as a junior. Notre Dame lost to unbeaten Connecticut in the NCAA final in 2015 and was bumped by Washington in a 2016 regional final.

In contrast, Waterman blew out her left ACL during her first Buckeyes practice. Worse, it was the same ACL tear she had while at Fairmont.

“It’s like a blessing in disguise,” said Waterman, who missed that freshman season and is now a redshirt sophomore sub. “Being out, I learned a lot about the game. It made me want to become a coach. I’ve gone from a player to a coach/player.”

Fully healed, she says, Waterman has appeared in all 34 games and averages 3.2 points in nearly 14 minutes per game.

This will be the first time OSU has played ND in the NCAA Tournament. The Irish defeated the Buckeyes 75-72 the last time they played in December 2015.

Notre Dame would be a heavy favorite if it hadn’t lost leading scorer and rebounder Brianna Turner to an ACL injury in an 88-82 overtime defeat of Purdue last Sunday. OSU advanced by defeating Kentucky, 82-68.

“We’ve had a lot of adversity,” said Westbeld, who’s still bothered by an ankle injury she suffered in practice nine weeks ago. “We need some other people to step up and make plays for us right now. We have a young team. My role is being that calm, steady person on the floor, that consistent person who’s going to get rebounds and score.”

Westbeld and Waterman regularly visit each other’s campus in the offseason. They watched Fairmont play during the holiday break and liked what they saw in Westbeld’s 6-2 freshman sister Maddie.

“We’re like family, now,” said Waterman.

There’s a good chance the former teammates will be on the court at the same time Friday, perhaps even guarding each other. If that happens, there will be plenty to talk about during their next chat.

“I’m really proud of her,” Waterman said of Westbeld. “She took on a big role in being a leader on and off the court. We talk about that kind of stuff a lot. She’s making a good name for herself at Notre Dame. Her future is very bright for Notre Dame and the rest of her basketball career.”

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Ohio State vs. Notre Dame, 7 p.m., UK’s Rupp Arena

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