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Women’s Basketball: Irish take positives from championship defeat

Matthew Robison | Friday, August 17, 2012

Coming off its second straight appearance in the NCAA title game, Notre Dame realizes it has plenty to take away from last season as well as a lot to improve upon.

The Irish fell 80-61 to Baylor and center Brittney Griner on April 3 in Denver. After beating Connecticut in a barn-burning semifinal when a last-second layup by departing senior guard Natalie Novosel sent the game into overtime, the Irish hit an undefeated juggernaut. But Irish coach Muffet McGraw, who signed a 10-year contract extension this offseason, expressed nothing but pride in her team’s accomplishments.

“It was another great season,” McGraw said. “It was just an unbelievable performance by so many people to get us back to the Final Four and then to beat Connecticut in one of the best games, I think, ever in the Final Four.”

The bitter taste of defeat never quite leaves a team’s tongue, especially when it was so close to sweet moment of raising the national championship trophy. But McGraw said Notre Dame will begin the upcoming season with a renewed attitude.

“Coming off a great season, it’s tough to not win the last game,” McGraw said. “But Baylor was obviously an exceptional team, going undefeated. We lost a lot of people, some great players. So we will be trying to build it back and rely on some freshmen. Some players who didn’t have as big of a role last year will have to take on some bigger roles.”

Notre Dame lost a strong corps of seniors in forward Devereaux Peters and guards Fraderica Miller, Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory.

Peters was an intimidating inside presence, Notre Dame’s leading rebounder and post defender who was drafted No. 3 overall in the 2012 WNBA Draft by the Minnesota Lynx. Miller was a fierce defender with quick hands and great athleticism, while Mallory was a defensive specialist and knock-down 3-point shooter.

Novosel, last year’s hero in the Final Four, scored 978 points in her career and was an offensive catalyst. Novosel went No. 8 in the draft to the Washington Mystics. The trio of Peters, Novosel and Mallory tied the school record by starting all 39 games last season.

But the Irish bring in three strong players in a highly touted recruiting class.
“I’m really excited about our class,” McGraw said. “They are just exactly what we needed.”

The Irish have three new freshman guards on the roster: Hannah Huffman, Michaela Mabrey and Jewell Loyd.

“[Huffman] is a very versatile player,” McGraw said. “She’s a guard. She will be able to post up and score and rebound and do a lot of things for us.”

The Concord, Calif., native committed to Notre Dame the night before the national championship matchup, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Her father, Lon, played golf for the Irish and is a 1986 graduate.

“Michaela Mabrey is a three-point shooter who can also play the point,” McGraw said. “She’s got really good basketball instincts.”

Mabrey, the Gatorade Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year in New Jersey, averaged 17 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists during her senior year. Loyd is the No. 3-ranked player in the 2012 class and the No. 1-ranked player at her position. She is a scoring guard and a tremendous athlete.
“[Loyd] can do a lot of things,” McGraw said. “She’s definitely someone we’re going to count on to score, and also to rebound and contribute. All three of them, we’re expecting them to contribute as freshmen.”

Although Notre Dame lost three key veterans, it returns its tone-setter – All-American senior guard Skylar Diggins.
“We return [Diggins] and [senior guard] Kaila Turner as our captains,” McGraw said. “Certainly over the years, having had the experiences they’ve gotten here, we expect that they will set the tone early. I think that we can count on that. I think that Skylar is going to set the tone when she’s got the ball in her hands and get us in gear quickly.”

Diggins led the Irish last season in points, assists and steals. Her defensive tenacity and lightning-quick footwork make her a nightmare for opposing squads while also allowing her to get out in transition and push the tempo.

“We’re going to play the same style we played last year – play a lot of up-tempo, hope to score a lot of points and play good defense,” McGraw said.

When it comes to goals expectations for the 2012-13 season, McGraw and the Irish keep it simple.

“Our goal is the same every year – we want to get better every game,” she said. “We want to be playing our best basketball in March. That is really our goal. We’re going to keep it simple early because we have some new people. “

The Irish have a tough slate for the upcoming season, but it is all about preparing for postseason play. Notre Dame will face Connecticut twice in a home-and-home series in the Big East. Including postseason play, the Irish faced the Huskies four times in each of the past two seasons. Last year, the Irish took three of the four.

“We’ll probably take a few lumps early on in the schedule because we do have a tough schedule,” McGraw said. “But we plan on being ready in March.”