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ND Women’s Basketball

Outstanding Senior Female Athlete: Kayla McBride

| Friday, May 16, 2014

Kayla McBride was not always an All-American.

The 5-foot-11 guard from Erie, Pa., came to Notre Dame as a four-star recruit and high school star but with little fanfare compared to the hoopla surrounding the arrival of superstar Skylar Diggins just a year earlier.

In her freshman season, McBride spent half the year riding the bench, slotted behind Diggins and veteran Natalie Novosel, and the other half attending to personal matters. While McBride watched, Diggins led the Irish to their first Final Four since 2001. McBride did not play in the Final Four, and Notre Dame’s bid for a national championship stopped short against Texas A&M in the title game.

A year later, McBride stepped up her game and worked her way into the starting rotation alongside Diggins and three seniors. She averaged 11.6 points per game and appeared in every game for the Irish. She recorded her first career double-double against archrival Connecticut, in addition to sinking the game-winning basket in overtime. In the national title game, which the Irish lost to Baylor, McBride was Notre Dame’s second-leading scorer behind Diggins and tied for the team lead in assists.

“She probably made more of a transformation than anybody because she transformed her body,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “She really, really worked hard on her diet and in the weight room.

“She always worked hard on her game. I knew that was not going to be an issue. But she just got better every single year. Her confidence grew. She got a little bit of a swagger to her game. She worked so hard on both ends of the floor, and she always just wanted to get better. She loved a challenge ¾ she never wanted you to say, ‘You’re doing really good, so stay right there.’”

That swagger became even more apparent in McBride’s junior season. She scored in double figures 32 times and became Notre Dame’s go-to scorer as opponents swarmed Diggins with double teams. At the end of the regular season, McBride scored a then-career-high 26 points against Connecticut to help the Irish secure a triple-overtime victory.

In the postseason, she was more dominant than ever, averaging over 20 points in her last 11 games, and McBride was named the Big East tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. At the end of the year, she was honored as an All-American by the AP and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA).

Kayla McBride was not always a national player of the year candidate.

“She wanted to be the best, and she was just so fun to coach,” McGraw said. “Her improvement from high school, where she wasn’t ranked that high coming out, maybe somewhere in the high 20s or 30s, and then to be the national player of the year candidate, that was a pretty amazing story.”

When Skylar Diggins graduated in 2013, most commentators did not think the Irish could return to the Final Four for a fourth straight season, a feat only five other schools had ever accomplished. Despite the return of McBride and three other starters, the Irish fell to No. 7 nationally in the preseason polls.

At Notre Dame, however, both the players and the coaches saw Diggins’ absence as a chance to employ a more balanced attack. McBride was the team’s highest returning scorer, but she said she felt no pressure to fill in completely for Diggins.

“I think [my goal this year] was just to do a little more,” McBride said. “More rebounding, more scoring, just more. When we lost Sky, she did everything, so it was up to a couple of us to pick up the slack. It wasn’t just going to come from one person, so I tried to do a little bit of everything, and then we had [senior forward Natalie Achonwa] doing more, [sophomore Jewell Loyd] doing more, so it wasn’t just about me; it was about the team.”

As one of Notre Dame’s senior leaders alongside Achonwa and forward Ariel Braker, McBride set new career highs in points, rebounds and assists per game. In Notre Dame’s first year in the ACC, McBride was voted ACC Player of the Year by the league’s coaches and led the Irish to the conference title.

Throughout the season, McGraw consistently referred to McBride as one of the best players in the country. She was named to the Wooden Award midseason watch list, along with Loyd and Achonwa, and was one of four finalists for the AP Player of the Year award.

Although McBride lost out to Stanford forward Chiney Ogwumike for the Wooden award and to Connecticut sophomore forward Breanna Stewart for the AP honor, McBride said she was satisfied with how her season played out.

“Breanna Stewart is a great player,” McBride said. “At the end of the day, she won the award and I didn’t, so that’s all I really have to say about it.”

Kayla McBride was not always a leader.

“My thing was always that I didn’t like to talk,” McBride said. “I wasn’t very vocal, and I think that with [Achonwa] and [Braker], they were more enforcers, and they were able to use their voice a lot more. So that’s something that I had to grow in and be confident in the things I would say to my teammates on the court. So I think that was the biggest thing ¾ that I grew as a leader. I think I had great leaders around me too. Coach McGraw, [Achonwa], having those sorts of people around starts to rub off on you.”

McBride’s quiet leadership was put to the test this season, first filling in for Diggins and then again when Achonwa, the team’s vocal leader, went down with a torn ACL in the Elite Eight. Without its leading rebounder and loudest presence on the court, Notre Dame faced a tough matchup in the Final Four against No. 4 Maryland and senior forward Alyssa Thomas, who ranked second in the nation with 28 double-doubles.

With one last chance for a national championship, McBride took over against the Terrapins, taking 21 shots from the field and leading all scorers with 28 points to preserve Notre Dame’s unbeaten run in an 87-61 win.

McBride did not let up in Notre Dame’s 79-58 loss to Connecticut in the championship game, leading the Irish with 21 points. At the end of the year, she was named to the all-tournament team and recognized as a unanimous All-American selection.

Kayla McBride was not always a top-three draft pick.

After entering college ranked 20th in her class by ESPN, McBride left school by following in Skylar Diggins’ footsteps. McBride was taken by the San Antonio Stars with the third pick in the WNBA draft April 14. She and Achonwa, who was selected ninth overall, are the fourth and fifth former Irish players to be chosen in the top 10.

“It’s amazing,” McGraw said. “I think it says so much for the recruiting that we’re doing, the development of the players. It’s really been amazing that we’ve been able to sustain our success, despite losing so many good players. It’s an opportunity for kids to come in at a young age and contribute as freshmen and know that they’re going to get better and that the WNBA is a reality for them.”

On May 2, McBride made her preseason debut for the Stars and logged 18 minutes against Diggins and the Tulsa Shock. The Shock blew out the Stars, 82-59, and McBride scored only three points. In a rematch four days later, however, McBride and Diggins led their respective teams in scoring.

When asked what she expects to see from McBride in her pro career, McGraw said she had high expectations.

“Great things, just great things,” she said. “She has a really good pro body and pro game. I think she’s going to be really successful at the next level.”

As McBride begins her WNBA career, she leaves an impressive mark in Notre Dame’s record book. She ranks first in career free-throw percentage, fifth in points and sixth in games played. McBride is also one of only five players to score 1,800 points and grab 600 rebounds. But her biggest legacy with the Irish will be in the people she leaves behind, she said.

“[I’ll miss] just being with my teammates and my coaches,” McBride said. “That’s the main reason I came here ¾ Coach McGraw and the assistant coaches and the teammates who I consider sisters. I think that’s the thing that I’m going to miss the most. That’s the thing that I’m most emotional about — having to leave them because we’re so close. We do everything together. I’m ready to see how they grow.”

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

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