SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame left no doubt in its opening-round NCAA Tournament game Friday, as the 3-seeded Fighting Irish beat 14-seeded Southern Utah, 82-56, inside Purcell Pavilion.

“Coming into this season, I talked about the entire team of, ‘What is our identity? What are people going to say after they play us?’ And I talked about that a lot early on,” Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey said. “And, to see where we are now … the resilience of this group, the toughness that we’ve shown with all our injuries over the last couple of weeks — I’m super proud.”

Notre Dame will now play Mississippi State in a second-round game at home Sunday. The 11-seeded Bulldogs blew out 6-seeded Creighton, 81-66, in the second game in South Bend. It was the second tournament win already for Mississippi State, as they won a First Four game over Illinois Wednesday.

The time of Sunday’s game was yet to be announced by late Friday.

Notre Dame (26-5) scored the first 16 points of the game against Southern Utah and made 13-of-16 shots (81%) in the first quarter to take a 27-10 lead through 10 minutes of play.

Junior forward Maddy Westbeld was the catalyst for the start, scoring eight points on 4-of-5 shots.

“I thought it was imperative we started off that way,” Ivey said. “We hadn’t played in two weeks, and it showed the growth of the last two weeks with the things we worked on. This is a different team; I have Sonia (Citron) running the point, and we’re establishing who we are. To do that on the defensive end and score on nine of 10 possessions shows our dominance on both sides of the ball.”

The lead reached as many as 29 in the first half when Westbeld made a jumper with 5:51 to go in the frame.

The Thunderbirds (23-10) lone rally in the game came after that point, as they closed the second quarter on a 12-2 run to make it just a 43-24 lead for the Irish at halftime.

Notre Dame immediately seized control right away in the second half, as Westbeld and junior Kylee Watson kept scoring at will for the Irish. The duo ended up finishing the game with 20 and 12 points, respectively, with Watson a perfect 6-of-6 shooting from the field. Westbeld made nine of her 17 shot attempts.

Maybe the biggest ovation of the game came in the final 90 seconds when walk-on junior Sarah Cernguel made an appearance. She would take one shot attempt — a ‘3’ that hit nearly every part of the rim before falling by the wayside. She then recorded a steal with 10 seconds to go, dribbling out the victory from there.

“I love the energy of the crowd when she came in,” said Ivey of Cernguel. “She is just a selfless worker. She’s a crowd favorite. She’s been an incredible addition to the team. She’s family. She works just as hard as everyone else.”

Friday was the first game Notre Dame had played since March 4. It was also the first time the Irish had played knowing star point guard Olivia Miles would be out for the rest of the season. This led to a starting lineup of Westbeld, Watson, senior Lauren Ebo, sophomore Olivia Citron and freshman KK Bransford.

Citron became the primary point guard, and she shined in the role. She finished with 14 points and six assists, the latter of which was a season high for her.

“So proud of her,” said Ivey of Citron. “She’s been working really hard the last couple of weeks, being in that position and understanding my message and what we want to run. We sat aside (Thursday), kind of gave her the plan of, ‘This is exactly what I want you to run.’ And the fact that she can turn into that position — something she’s never done before — is just remarkable. It just shows you who she is, as a player.”

As a team, Notre Dame had 24 assists in the game, tying the best mark for the year.

“I’ve talked a lot about how playing the right way, to me, is playing unselfish,” Ivey said. “Teams are going to do a lot of different things against us; sometimes double team. So, being aware of that, finding the mismatches and being unselfish — I thought we did a great job of that.”

Austin Hough can be reached at or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.

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