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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish take time to celebrate this Final Four

| Friday, April 3, 2015

Playing in the Final Four isn’t a new experience for Notre Dame — the program has now accomplished the feat five years in a row.

Neither is the crazy schedule that comes with the Final Four weekend, complete with interviews, video shoots, open practices and autograph sessions.

However, the Irish (35-2) have discovered one thing new for this year — a different side to head coach Muffet McGraw and her usual businesslike mentality.

“I think she’s just a little more happy and not as stressed out,” junior guard Michaela Mabrey said Thursday. “I think she’s really sharing with us how special this is. You don’t really get to celebrate as much because you’re just going straight from game to game, but I think she’s really making it aware to us how special it is and how grateful we should be to be in this position.”

At various times throughout the year, some thought it looked doubtful whether the Irish would make it to Tampa, Florida.

Before the season even started, critics said they were too young and had lost too much experience and leadership with the graduations of guard Kayla McBride and forward Natalie Achonwa.

Then came the first loss of the year, a 76-58 defeat at the hands of Connecticut on Dec. 6, followed by the second a month later to unranked Miami (Fla.), 78-63.

But Notre Dame players said they never lost confidence in themselves, despite what others said.

“I think throughout the season, definitely after the Miami loss, people were starting to doubt us a little bit, and that’s just pretty much made us stronger,” junior guard Jewell Loyd said. “We realized what we had to fix, and we all dialed in and focused in on that and just came together as a whole and kept accomplishing our goals.”

But even as confident as they were, sophomore guard Lindsay Allen said the Irish still recognized that not making it to Tampa would break a string of four consecutive trips to the tournament’s final weekend.

“I think there was a little bit of pressure, but we didn’t pay attention to it,” she said. “We knew what we were capable of, and we knew we had great alums really backing us up and supporting us the whole way.”

In previous years, the team has torn through its competition with a businesslike approach, but this year, it’s different — something Loyd said McGraw has noticed these past few weeks.

“This team, we play nice and loose when we’re joking around and having fun, so I think she’s starting to see that now,” Loyd said. “This is a good time to see that, so even in practice, we’re just more laughing and joking around, but obviously, we’re still very serious.

“But if something happens that’s funny — someone trips or someone gets hit or something — we’re usually kind of chuckling or laughing about, but we’re still about business.”

Unlike previous seasons, Mabrey said their tough schedule has also made them step back and take in the moment, even sparing a little time to celebrate with McGraw.

“I think it kind of makes it even more special that we’re here,” she said. “Not many people at all thought we’d be here because of how young we are, but I think, like Coach [McGraw] said, we’re walking in with a smile, and we’re just grateful to be there, but we definitely want to finish it here.

“I think we have the talent, and I think the way we’ve been playing, we definitely have a really good chance of doing that.”

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Current Assistant Managing Editor, former Sports Editor of The Observer | Follow Mary on Twitter: @maryegreen15

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