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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish set eyes on national title

| Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Irish have yet to officially lay out their goals for the upcoming season, but after four straight trips to the Final Four, head coach Muffet McGraw said she knows there is one that will definitely be on that list.

“We’re competing for a national championship,” McGraw said at the team’s media day Wednesday. “That’s our main goal.”

Notre Dame has a new look for this season after losing three of its starters to graduation — All-American guard Kayla McBride, All-American forward Natalie Achonwa and forward Ariel Braker.

McGraw said she will look to junior guard Jewell Loyd — who led the Irish in scoring last year with 18.6 points per game — to step up as the go-to player on the court this year.

“It’s hard to imagine [Loyd] getting better,” McGraw said with a laugh. “She’s been so good. … She is so ready, just so ready to go. She has been working extremely hard. She’s in the gym all the time, and she just is anxious for the season to get going so that she can really see what she’s going to do.”

Loyd said she is ready to face the attention that will come her way on the court.

“I think it makes it fun for the game,” Loyd said. “That what you look for — you look for one-on-one competitions. You look at how you can beat the other team, and that’s something that I look forward to and I’m excited for.”

The Irish have also brought in three freshmen to help rebuild a program that has seen consistent success over the last several seasons.

Making up that group are guard Mychal Johnson and forwards Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld. Turner won the 2014 Gatorade National High School Female Athlete of the Year award, and Westbeld joined her as a McDonald’s High School All-American.

“I feel like we’ll be a lot more athletic this year with the addition of our three freshmen, Brianna, Mychal and Kathryn,” sophomore guard Lindsay Allen said. “I feel like we’ll be more athletic. I feel like we’ll be able to press a little bit more than we did last year. And I feel like our length is really gonna show this year.”

Turner, who never actually attended a game at Purcell Pavilion during her recruiting process, said she is eager to lace up for the Irish.

“I remember I watched them last year and in their previous Final Fours before I was really recruited by them, but now actually being here, it’s kind of surreal,” Turner said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I have an opportunity to go to a Final Four, to win a national championship,’ so it’s really exciting.”

With that youth, McGraw said, might come some early troubles for the Irish.

“We’re young. We’re just so young,” she said. “We’re inexperienced — that is something that you just can’t teach. So that’s where we’re going to struggle. … Last year, we were just so smooth, and everyone knew what to do.”

Off the court, the Irish lost a key vocal leader in Achonwa, but McGraw said Allen and junior guard Michaela Mabrey have taken on her previous role.

“This year, we’re expecting that Lindsay Allen is really going to step up her leadership,” McGraw said. “Last year, she didn’t have to tell anybody what to do because everybody knew, and now, she’s playing with a lot of younger players.”

In the last few seasons, Notre Dame’s strength has come in its guard play, producing All-Americans like Loyd and former standout Skylar Diggins. This year, however, McGraw said the team’s post players have become a strong point for the Irish.

“We have the best post, the most definite post that we’ve had in a long time,” McGraw said. “We can go big and play three, four and five really big, which is something that we’ve already looked at in practice and having [Irish associate head coach Carol Owens] working down there with them — it just takes a load off my mind because I know that they’re getting exactly what they need from her.”

Sophomore forward Taya Reimer said the group has worked to replicate Achonwa’s steady presence down low.

“We knew that we were losing a lot in Natalie,” Reimer said. “We all knew that all of us, as a post group, we had to step up this year, so we just put in a lot of hours over the summer working with [Owens] and just getting stronger in the weight room.”

The Irish have a little less than a month before they tip off their season in an exhibition against Ferris State on Nov. 5 at Purcell Pavilion.

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