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  • Associated Press Notre Dame guard Michaela Mabrey (23) dribbles past Montana guard McCalle Feller (5) in the first half of an NCAA tournament college basketball first round game Friday in South Bend.

  • Associated Press Notre Dame guard Michaela Mabrey (23) looks over to her bench after making a shot in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against DePaul in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament in South Bend Sunday.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 11:14 am

Irish junior goes from role player to key role

Chris Goff The Journal Gazette

A year ago around this time, Michaela Mabrey was little more than a role player for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.

As the Irish pursue another deep NCAA tournament run, times have changed in a big way for Mabrey, who now starts on the wing for the nation’s second-ranked team.

In fact, the junior is a key reason top-seeded Notre Dame advanced to the Sweet 16.

With leading scorer Jewell Loyd struggling Sunday against DePaul, Mabrey racked up a team-high 19 points in the Irish’s 79-67 victory.

"I think they left me open a little bit," Mabrey said. "My teammates found me really, really well. I owe it all to them, honestly."

The win secured a third-round meeting Friday with No. 4 seed Stanford (26-9) at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.

Notre Dame (33-2) may need Mabrey again, and coach Muffet McGraw has learned that’s not such a bad thing, if the previous game was any indication of Mabrey’s growth.

"On a night when the stars of both teams were off, it was great to see how the rest of the team picked us up," McGraw said. "I thought Michaela Mabrey had a great stretch where she hit a couple 3s, got a couple defensive rebounds, which surprised all of us, and did a really good job on both ends of the floor.

"I thought she had a great performance."

The 5-foot-10 Mabrey is from Belmar, New Jersey, and she stands out in the locker room with her East Coast personality.

But her level of importance has risen along with her playing time after the graduation of all-time great Kayla McBride, who helped lead the Irish to the national championship game last year.

Mabrey is averaging 7.1 points in 23.1 minutes per game and shooting 38 percent on 3-pointers. Of her 226 shot attempts, 177 have been 3s.

"It’s great," Notre Dame forward Taya Reimer said. "When she’s hitting shots we all get energy off of that, and we play off that, and we just all get into it. She is such a great shooter. We’re all trying to look for her all the time, because that just spreads the defense out because they have to guard her. It’s always exciting when she’s on."

As a film, television and theater major, Mabrey perhaps surprises no one with her natural sense of how to work with others to a larger goal.

This is not last year’s team, led by McBride, Loyd and Natalie Achonwa, which viewed any bench production from Mabrey as a bonus.

But Mabrey still has a mindset of whatever is best for the team.

"We have such great post players and such great guards," she said. "They (other teams) are so focused on them that I’m just spotting up wherever they’re going, finding my place in open space."

So far, the NCAA tournament, rather than being a pressure-cooker, has actually been freeing for Mabrey – she had nine points in the opener, a 77-43 rout of Montana.

"I think we were just having some fun," Mabrey said. "We weren’t so stressed out and everything. We’re just grateful and blessed to be in the position that we are."

cgoff@jg.net