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ND Women’s Basketball

Greason: This season is Muffet McGraw’s most impressive coaching job

| Saturday, March 24, 2018

It isn’t easy reaching the Sweet 16. However, for No. 1-seed Notre Dame, which is making its ninth-straight appearance in the NCAA tournament’s third round, a trip to the tournament regional is nothing short of an expectation.

However, the road to the Spokane regional was not exactly a smooth one for the Irish (31-3, 15-1 ACC), making this year Irish head coach Muffet McGraw’s most impressive season of her 31 at Notre Dame.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Irish head coach Muffet McGraw watches her team from the sideline during Notre Dame’s 86-67 win over North Carolina State on Feb. 25 at Purcell Pavilion.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, the storyline that has highlighted the season: the injuries. It all started when All-American senior forward Brianna Turner went down with a torn ACL during March Madness last year.

A season-ending ACL injury.

And then senior guard Mychal Johnson tore her ACL in practice before the season began, leaving the Irish with one scholarship guard on their bench.

Two season-ending ACL injuries.

Freshman center Mikayla Vaughn tore her ACL during practice in November, after averaging eight points and over four rebounds per game to start her collegiate career.

Three season-ending ACL injuries.

Graduate student guard Lili Thompson went down with a torn ACL during Notre Dame’s win over Wake Forest on Dec. 31, putting an end to her college career and decreasing the number of scholarship guards on the bench to none.

Four season-ending ACL injuries.

Four season-ending ACL injuries and seven scholarship athletes on the roster. That is what McGraw had to work with by the time 2018 and the heart of the schedule rolled around. But she made it work. She has embraced the talent she does have — a small team of immensely talented players — and reallocated.

Junior forward Jessica Shepard, a transfer from Nebraska, was supposed to sit out the year, but was granted immediate eligibility on the day of Notre Dame’s first game, after two of the season-ending injuries had occurred. She and senior forward Kathryn Westbeld have done their best to fill Turner’s shoes, as her injury left a noticeable absence in the post on both ends of the court.

But the biggest adjustment McGraw’s team has had to make is with junior guard Marina Mabrey. McGraw has relied on Mabrey consistently since her freshman year as one of the squad’s top scorers from the field and from the beyond the 3-point line, as her 45.3 percent 3-point field-goal percentage in 2015-16 sits at sixth all-time in the Notre Dame record boards for a single season. However, when the Irish lost Thompson, their only true point guard, it was left up to Mabrey to take on the role. And while there were growing pains at first, she has filled the role admirably.

Cut to the first round of the NCAA tournament. Three minutes into the first round. Westbeld sprains her ankle and does not return to the game. She does not start against Villanova the next round either, although she returned for the second half, playing through what McGraw qualified as a significant amount of pain.

Six healthy scholarship players left.

Graduate student forward Kristina Nelson made the start instead, while sophomore guard Kaitlin Cole, a walk-on, accumulated more minutes than a scholarship player. That’s how far this team has come. Or how much this team has overcome.

And sophomore guard Jackie Young stayed on the court seconds shy of a full 40 minutes, something that has become a common enough occurrence for the Irish guards. Not many coaches have to work players who come off the court after having played their hearts out for an entire game with no rest night after night after night. Not many coaches would reach the Sweet 16 with players who are undoubtedly exhausted, no matter how talented they are.

A 100-67 loss to Louisville in January might have beaten a team that was already down. But not this team. It got back up, proving that it can fight to the finish.

So no matter what happens in Spokane, Washington, this weekend, it will be Muffet McGraw’s most impressive season as a head coach yet.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Elizabeth Greason

Elizabeth is a senior studying civil engineering from New York, NY (yes, the actual city). She is a proud resident assistant in McGlinn Hall and is a die-hard Mets and Giants fan. She is currently serving as assistant managing editor of The Observer and she also has an obsession with golf that is bordering on unhealthy.

Contact Elizabeth