Patberg enjoying first NCAA ride with Irish

When Ali Patberg arrived at Notre Dame, she had expected that the Fighting Irish women’s basketball team would be playing — and be one of the favorites — in the NCAA Tournament.

She hadn’t planned on just being a spectator.

Patberg, who led Columbus North to a state championship last winter, is sitting out her freshman year in South Bend after sustaining a preseason knee injury, but she’s still along for the ride as the Irish, now 31-1 and seeded first in the Lexington Region, chase a sixth consecutive Final Four appearance and their first national title since 2001.

The next step in that quest comes tonight at 9 when Notre Dame takes on fourth-seeded Stanford at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.

Though it’s been extremely difficult for Patberg to just sit and watch, she’s enjoying her first NCAA Tournament experience so far.

“It’s kind of motivation for me,” she said Thursday afternoon, “to see what I’m going to have to do and work on to be the best that I can be, so when my time does come, that I’ll be ready.”

High school basketball in Indiana is a big deal, but March Madness is an entirely different animal, with ESPN cameras following the action every step of the way.

Aside from the national TV exposure, Patberg says that the biggest difference between her high school tournament experience and now is the amount of preparation that gets put in before each game.

“If you want to play, and if you want to do well,” Patberg explained, “you have to know what’s going on, the personnel, our personnel, what each player does well. The preparation and the mental part of the game are definitely up a notch.”

Even though Patberg hasn’t been playing, she’s been taking notes. Stanford, she says, has “a lot of really good shooters, and they run a lot of ball screens, and they try to run up and down.”

That might not be the best idea against the high-octane Fighting Irish, who rank eighth nationally in scoring offense at 79.9 points per game.

Should Notre Dame get past the 26-7 Cardinal tonight, it could end up with a true road game against the No. 3 seed and regional host Kentucky.

The end target, though, is a rematch with three-time defending national champion UConn, which has eliminated the Irish from the past three Final Fours and handed Notre Dame its only defeat this season, a 91-81 setback in Storrs, Connecticut, way back in early December.

Notre Dame wasn’t just missing Patberg that day, though — Brianna Turner, this year’s Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, sat out with a shoulder injury. With Turner back, the Irish are hoping to reach their fifth national title game in the last six seasons — and this time, finish the job.

Much like her new team, Patberg isn’t accustomed to losing. Here’s hoping it’s not something she has to acquaint herself with anytime during these next two weekends.

CATCH THE MADNESS

Tonight’s NCAA basketball tournament action:

Men

Iowa State vs. Virginia, 7:10 p.m. (CBS)

Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame, 7:27 p.m. (TBS)

Gonzaga vs. Syracuse, 9:40 p.m. (CBS)

Indiana vs. North Carolina, 9:57 p.m. (TBS)

Women

Syracuse vs. South Carolina, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Washington vs. Kentucky, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Stanford vs. Notre Dame, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Tennessee vs. Ohio State, 9 p.m. (ESPN2)