ND Women’s Basketball
Fresh identity, same goal
Mary Green | Thursday, April 2, 2015
At the beginning of season, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw seemed to slip one particular phrase into every one of her press conferences.
“Take some lumps” — that’s how she described her expectations for Notre Dame’s upcoming season.
The Irish had advanced to four straight Final Fours, but McGraw wasn’t about to book her team’s tickets to Tampa, Florida, just yet. There were too many question marks and unsettled areas.
“We’re going to take some lumps early, and we’re going to have a lot of games that could go either way, and we’ll see what happens,” McGraw said Nov. 12. “We overachieved last year. This year, I really mean it: We’re gonna take some lumps early.
“I mean, we really are young. We’re so different from last year. We just don’t know what’s gonna happen late in a game, when adversity hits, when we get down, when we get in foul trouble, when things start to spiral in the wrong direction.”
For one, the starting lineup looked a little different than it had the year before, when the Irish finished the regular season undefeated and suffered their only loss of the year in the national championship game.
“When you lose two first-round draft picks, three starters and a ton of experience, I don’t think you go into the season thinking, ‘This is our national championship team,’” McGraw said in a teleconference Wednesday.
Those two first-round picks in last year’s WNBA Draft, guard Kayla McBride and forward Natalie Achonwa, averaged a combined 32.5 points and 13.0 rebounds per game in their senior year.
Even more so, they and classmate Ariel Braker represented experience in the starting five — each played significant minutes for the Irish, with McBride (29.4 minutes per game) leading the way, followed by Achonwa (25.4) and Braker (17.0).
The other two starters, junior guard Jewell Loyd and sophomore guard Lindsay Allen, returned, but Loyd, a 2014 second-team AP All-American, was about the only surefire thing on the roster.
Allen’s role at point guard during her freshman year centered primarily on handling the ball, dishing it out to teammates and keeping her turnovers down. This year, McGraw said she asked Allen to do more to fill in for the graduated players.
“Coming into the season, we talked to Lindsay and told her she’s going to have to score a little bit more,” McGraw said Wednesday. “This year, she’s got to score more and be more vocal, and she’s been able to do that.”
Irish coaches then had to fill out the rest of the starting five. They settled on one lineup for the season opener and have stuck to it in nearly every game since: Loyd, Allen, junior guard Michaela Mabrey, sophomore forward Taya Reimer and freshman forward Brianna Turner — with the latter three combining for seven career starts in a Notre Dame uniform.
With such a young and inexperienced group, McGraw questioned her team’s toughness in early contests.
But after a sweep of the ACC regular season and tournament titles, the head coach said her expectations had been met.
“I think they’ve definitely reached that level and then some,” McGraw said last Saturday. “I think we’ve seen that in a lot of games in the ACC. We saw that in our DePaul game up in Chicago, which was shortly after the first loss of the season. So I think they really showed a lot of resilience, but particularly in the posts.
“I think our guards are pretty tough. They’ve been tough all year long, but I think the post was where we were questioning it, and they definitely have come along and come a long way.”
McGraw pointed to two games in particular that served as the season’s turning points. The first came against DePaul on Dec. 10, just four days after the Irish had suffered their first defeat of the season at the hands of then-No. 3 Connecticut and a week after they had topped then-No. 15 Maryland — both of which join Notre Dame in the Final Four this weekend, along with South Carolina.
Notre Dame trailed the Blue Demons for most of that matchup in Chicago before forcing overtime and escaping with the 94-93 victory, solidified by two free throws from Loyd with 5.3 seconds left for the tie and the win. The junior scorched the DePaul defense for a career-high 41 points to ensure the Irish didn’t fall in a second straight game.
However, Notre Dame did end up falling a second time on the season in the other matchup McGraw called a tipping point. In a 78-63 loss to unranked Miami (Fla.) on Jan. 8, the Irish scrapped together a lackluster performance on both sides of the floor and never seemed to get in a rhythm against the Hurricanes.
“We played about as poorly as we could possibly play,” McGraw said Wednesday of the Miami loss. “Worst game of the year — shot about 25 percent from the field and didn’t defend, and so many things went wrong in that game. So I think to come back from that debacle and win out the rest of the year, I think that shows that we did get a lot tougher.”
Since that point, there has been no looking back for the Irish squad, which is currently riding a 21-game win streak.
Notre Dame cruised through the ACC tournament, with an average margin of victory of nearly 12 points, and has looked just as dominant in the NCAA tournament, in which it has bested No. 16 seed Montana, No. 9 seed DePaul, No. 4 seed Stanford and No. 2 seed Baylor.
After the win over Baylor on Sunday to advance to a fifth-straight Final Four, McGraw said she had never experienced a run quite like this one.
“We had to work the hardest to get to this one,” she said Sunday. “I thought we lost so much from last year, and we’ve lost really good players throughout the years, but last year’s experience and not having any senior starters, you know, you just didn’t know how the season was going to unfold.
“We had so many tough games. I think we played the toughest schedule in the country, so we learned a lot throughout it. I thought they came into practice every day ready to learn, but I still felt we were going to take some lumps at some point, so when we kept on winning, it just really built our confidence.”
Now that her team has exceeded its early-season expectations, McGraw said it will keep trying to reach its goals for one final weekend.
“I think we go into the Final Four with an attitude of, we’re going to do what we do,” she said Wednesday. “We’re going to work hard. We have an attitude that we think we can win. At the end, we have four of the best teams in the country. We’ve had some really close games. We’ve lost some heartbreakers. We’ve had some success in the semifinals.
“But I don’t think we go in thinking we’ve got to win this one. We’re just going in and playing our game.”
So far, playing their game has worked out for the Irish — whether that success was expected or not.