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Third Final Four adds to McGraw’s legacy

Andrew Owens | Thursday, March 31, 2011

In 1987, when Notre Dame athletics director Gene Corrigan introduced Muffet McGraw as the head coach of the Irish, he told those in attendance that he would not find a better candidate even if he had utilized an additional year to find someone to lead the program.

Not even Corrigan could have imagined the depths the former Lehigh head coach would take the program to, and now McGraw prepares her team for its third Final Four appearance, with enshrinement into the Hall of Fame coming this summer. Not to mention her most sparkling achievement: transforming the Irish into one of the sport’s biggest powerhouses.

Ten years ago, the Irish were playing in their second Final Four appearance under McGraw and were able to avenge a loss in the Big East championship game to Connecticut with a 90-75 victory over the Huskies in the national semifinals. A decade later, McGraw once again finds only Connecticut between her squad and an appearance in the national title game.

“We weren’t really thinking about [the possibility of the Final Four] too much,” McGraw said. “We had our reunion in the fall; they presented our team with a basketball and said we won one, now it’s your turn.”

In the 2001 Big East championship game, McGraw watched as Huskies guard Sue Bird went coast-to-coast and finished it off with a game-winning layup in a heartbreaking loss. But McGraw would not allow the team to stay down in the loss. After all, the NCAA tournament was only days away.

McGraw worked her magic and got the team to focus on the ultimate prize: a trip to the Final Four. In the same situation this year, she once again delivered and led the team to women’s basketball’s semifinals.

“She’s the woman with the answers,” Irish senior forward Becca Bruszewski said. “She’s the one that tells us what to do, calls the plays, gets on us about what type of defense we are, knows how to shut a team down, you know, whatever the game plan is, she sets it and we go to it.”

McGraw, now in her 29th season as a collegiate head coach, has often had to deal with adversity and obstacles, with this year being no different. Earlier this season, two key contributors left the team for personal reasons — junior forward Erica Solomon and freshman guard Kayla McBride. Overcoming the two departures, injuries to Bruszewski at critical times and the uncertain health status of senior forward Devereaux Peters heading into the season, McGraw has pulled off one of the most impressive performances in her illustrious career.

“She’s been unbelievable,” senior guard Brittany Mallory said. “She’s led us from losing people from injuries. She’s got a great mindset, and she’s been here before. She’s just kind of getting us ready for everything.”

When the Irish take the court Sunday night, McGraw will have one of the best coaching staffs in the country sitting next to her — one that includes assistant coach Niele Ivey, who starred on the 2001 championship squad.

“I think I’ve been fortunate to have great coaches with me,” McGraw said. “We’ve had great assistant coaches over the years. The coaches are extremely competitive. We want to win and we hate to lose.”

This season’s Final Four squad will have one advantage that McGraw’s 2001 team did not have — the advantage of playing in their home state. McGraw, however, does not think the close proximity will play much of a role in Sunday’s matchup.

“We do get to get on a bus instead of a plane which is kind of nice but other than that we’re going to be staying in a hotel in a different city,” she said.

With two more wins this season, McGraw can reach the pinnacle of college basketball by adding an NCAA championship to her résumé.

“It’s rewarding [to reach the Final Four],” McGraw said. “You worry at the beginning of the year, you think ‘Gosh, I’m going into the Hall of Fame, what if we have a really bad season?’ Now to beat Tennessee and head to Indianapolis, it takes on a bigger meaning.”

A meaning bigger than what she, or Corrigan, could have ever imagined.