One Shining Moment

Scenes from a boisterous basketball bounty

Author: Allie Griffith ’17, ’19M.Ed.

Students cheer the women's basketball team during an NCAA tournament game against Ole Miss. Students with a gap in their schedules — or not — amped up the energy in Purcell Pavilion. Photography by Mary Kate McGuirk ’24

There are not many places I’d have rather been headed on a Monday afternoon.

I stepped out of my office on Notre Dame’s campus with two coworkers at 1:45 p.m. to make the short trek from the Eck Visitors Center to the Joyce Center for the 2 p.m. Notre Dame women’s basketball NCAA Tournament tipoff against Ole Miss. Meetings had been shuffled and abbreviated, and supervisors had been generous to let us defer our to-do lists for two hours, knowing that we were huge fans of Niele Ivey ’00 and the team.

As we crossed onto DeBartolo Quad, we found we weren’t alone. Students were hustling out of Duncan Student Center, and to our right, cars were lined up in front of DPAC waiting to park in the Joyce Lot. My coworker, Sarah, passed a student she knew outside of the Mendoza College of Business. She told him where we were headed.

“Oh, is that where all these hundreds of people are heading?” he said. “It’s like the whole campus is going that way.”

It did seem that way, and as we got closer to the arena, folks of all ages were lined up to get inside. I recalled seeing a video on X from Saturday’s first round matchup against Kent State, the line to get inside snaking all the way to the football stadium. Later, a season-ticket holder in line for the bathrooms told me she drove 45 minutes for every home game this season, and had been on campus since 9:30 a.m. that morning to avoid the crowds.

Not us. Running a bit late, we had to squeeze our way into our Section 10 seats. We were in the heart of the madness, middle section down in front, thanks to the Alumni Association. Purcell was packed, and we crammed into our row like sardines as the lights dimmed and the starting five for each team were announced. Fans waved trademark lime-colored glow sticks with fervor until the entire arena became a blur of green. It was game time.

Notre Dame's Hannah Hidalgo leaps toward the basket for a shot over an Ole Miss defender with outstretched arms.
“Hidalgo converted contested layups that seemed almost unbelievable, her small frame never backing down from defensive aggression.”

In women’s basketball, the tournament’s top seeds earn moments like these — the opportunity to host the first round and, fingers-crossed, round of 32 on their home courts. Many other sports adapt this model — for instance, in the NFL playoffs until the Super Bowl. In the past, the NCAA has attempted early-round neutral sites for the women’s tournament and witnessed low attendance. While opposing teams like Ole Miss certainly don’t have numbers on their side (although Rebels coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin did applaud South Bend’s atmosphere), and games like Iowa vs. West Virginia on Monday night might make fans question the fairness of the environment and the refs (host Iowa shot 30 free throws to West Virginia’s 5), it’s hard to be upset with a packed gym.

Sitting in an electric Purcell Pavilion on a Monday afternoon, no one could deny the fun and excitement of seeing this many people amped up about women’s basketball when they would otherwise be at work or school.

There were the familiar faces. I recognized the group of five women who typically sit in Section 10 a few rows below us, leaping out of their seats to heckle the refs or to high five each other when Sonia Citron sinks another 3-pointer. There was José, my friend and usher who has become a staple of Notre Dame women’s basketball home games, across the way near the ND bench. There were the Notre Dame cheerleaders and leprechaun and band, moved down from the stands into a prime sideline section, per NCAA regulations. There were young kids — lots of them, I thought, for a Monday afternoon. The jumbotron showed boys clad in Notre Dame jerseys dancing during time outs, and at one point, a group of 10 or so teenage girls screaming and smiling into the camera. I was surprised to see our ND student section filled top to bottom, students either with a gap in their class schedule or admitting to their professor they had “places to be,” leading cheers and hamming it up for the camera.

And it was an easy environment to cheer thanks to Hannah Hidalgo, Maddy Westbeld and Citron leading the Irish. Notre Dame punched first and never took our foot off the gas. Ole Miss struggled to finish around the rim against an effective extended zone defense. Meanwhile, Hidalgo converted contested layups that seemed almost unbelievable, her small frame never backing down from defensive aggression. It’s a marvel watching her, and her confidence as a point guard seems to empower her teammates — and the entire arena.

Monday’s energy in Purcell has become the norm in South Bend. I spotted Muffet McGraw in her signature green scarf with her husband, Matt, in the stands. I thought about the program she built, from one that struggled for attention and attendance into a national powerhouse. I thought about her dedication to mentoring and developing women leaders, including her belief in former player and assistant coach Ivey, who fuels the next generation of Irish players and coaches.

I spotted former Notre Dame players in the stands. One of my favorites, WNBA star Brianna Turner ’18, who returned to South Bend for Saturday’s win against Kent State, has become a vocal leader in the league for social justice and women’s rights. On Monday, I also spotted former standout post and three-time Olympian Natalie “Ace” Achonwa ’14 holding her son, Maverick, behind the Notre Dame bench.  I recall Achonwa being a force of leadership when I was a student manager from 2013 to 2017, the voice of wisdom in the huddle even after she tore her ACL. Now, she’s a mom and Canadian women’s national team captain ready to return to the court this year.

Students with arms around each other sing the alma mater after Notre Dame's women's basketball win over Ole Miss in the NCAA Tournament.
“Even though the game had ended, it seemed like no one in the arena wanted to leave.”

What is special at this moment in women’s college basketball (and one could argue, women’s sports in general) is that Purcell is not an anomaly — packed arenas like this on a Monday afternoon are becoming common across the U.S., with the rise of stars like Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, USC’s JuJu Watkins and Notre Dame’s very own Hannah Hidalgo, who was just named a first-team AP All-American as a freshman. Two years ago, I had to nag bartenders and friends to put on women’s basketball in social settings — now, it’s typical to have multiple TV’s showing the games. My YouTube TV account has started offering a multiview of men’s and women’s basketball together, for those who want to watch both.

To have a home team and multiple tournament games featuring the best of the best in our own backyard? A gift.

After Ivey and her team sang the alma mater with the crowd after Monday’s win, my coworkers and I sighed, knowing we had to make our way back to reality for the last hour of the work day. Even though the game had ended, it seemed like no one in the arena wanted to leave. We bobbed and “excuse me”-d our way out. As we neared the tunnel close to the Notre Dame locker room, two boys around 6 or 7 years old darted in front of us.

“Look! It’s Hannah! She’s right there!” They were giddy, holding notebooks and sharpies, yelling and pointing at Hidalgo.

She ended her interview and hustled over to them. “I’ll be right back! Stay right there! I’ll come back out!” She had to hustle into the locker room to be with her team.

The boys smiled and jumped up and down, high fiving each other.

Something tells me they stuck around.

Allie Griffith is this magazine’s alumni editor.