ND Women’s Basketball
McGraw, Irish prepare for championship matchup with Mississippi State
Daniel O'Boyle | Saturday, March 31, 2018
COLUMBUS, Ohio — In groups of two or three, almost every player in Notre Dame’s locker room was huddled around a phone playing the same song, a tribute to the team by Indiana rapper Tevin Studdard.
“Some guy tweeted it at us,” graduate student forward Kristina Nelson said.
“That was lit. He literally put the whole team, everybody in there,” senior guard Mychal Johnson said.
She’s right. Every member of the roster — the walk-ons, the injured players, the AP second-team All-American that hit the shot that beat UConn, even Irish head coach Muffet McGraw and her assistant coaches — has their name dropped at some point in the song.
It’s just another example of the attention that comes with knocking off the top-ranked team in the country and playing for a national championship.
With the last Irish Final Four appearance coming in 2015 and with no player on the roster having beaten the Huskies before Friday, this kind of stardom is a new phenomenon for most of the team. But McGraw has been in similar situations, and she said it’s important her team can stay in the right mindset after the victory.
“Nobody on my team has been in this position,” McGraw said. “I guess possibly [senior forward Kathryn Westbeld] and [Nelson]. It’s all about the mindset. Really, it’s all about this is a game, two teams coming in playing for a national championship. They were here last year. They know what it’s like. So for us, I think just a matter of continuing to do what we’ve been doing and not let the pressure of the moment get to us.
“In 2011, we beat Tennessee in the regional, came in and beat Connecticut. Nobody had ever beaten them back-to-back. It was like we were done. We were spent. That was all the emotion that we had. We just never really recovered from it. And I think it was similar: Any time you beat Connecticut, because of the dominance of their program, it’s just such an emotional win. It makes it really hard to kind of get back to work. You feel like that should have been the championship game. We should be going home right now. So it is, it’s a lot of emotion. It’s a lot of adrenaline. It’s a lot just on the mental part of your game. So it really is hard to come back and try gather yourself just with one day in between. Not a lot of time.”
That 2011 championship defeat isn’t just relevant today because of who the Irish beat to get there. It also saw the Irish face a defense organized by current Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer, who was an associate head coach with the Aggies at the time. McGraw said Schaefer is one of the best defensive minds in the game.
“He’s got just a great mind for defensive philosophy,” McGraw said. “He, obviously, is great at practice, getting his team to do exactly what he wants them to do. They are pressure all the time. They take a lot of pride in their defense. That’s probably the thing that he instills in them is how much pride they take in their defense. I think they’re known for it.”
To win a national championship, the Irish will have to overcome a giant obstacle in 6-foot-7 Mississippi State junior center Teaira McCowan. McCowan had 21 points, 25 rebounds — 13 on the offensive end — and three blocks in the semifinal against Louisville. McGraw said McCowan can’t be guarded by just one player.
“It is literally a tall order,” McGraw said. “[Irish junior forward Jessica Shepard] has the strength, I think, to help, but we’re going to need to bring some help, and that’s really hard to do, the way they shoot the ball. So they’re going to spread you out, four out one end, and make it really tough for us to defend her. But Jess and [Nelson] both are going to have that assignment.
“She’s a tough matchup. We haven’t faced anybody like that. I mean, [South Carolina senior forward] A’ja Wilson was really mobile and did a lot more away from the basket, but just the sheer size.”
Though McCowan’s size has captured most of the attention, the Bulldogs’ run to the championship game has involved more than just one player. Senior guard Victoria Vivians was awarded the Ann Meyers Drysdale award for the best shooting guard in the nation after averaging 19.8 points per game for the Bulldogs. McGraw said Vivians’ versatility and size for her position makes her a serious threat.
“She’s just a great all around player,” McGraw said. “She’s going to be a really tough matchup for us. When you have somebody with her size that can also put it on the floor and take it to the rim, she is shooting the ball very well. She can do pretty much whatever she wants offensively. She’s just really hard to guard. Defensively, she’s a great presence for them. Their whole team, great pressure defense. I think Vic does a great job just with their defense and getting up and getting on the ball.”
As for her own team, McGraw — who said she hadn’t heard the song — said the team’s easygoing attitude was exactly the kind of mindset it needed.
“With this team, they need to be calm and have fun,” McGraw said. “That’s not me at all, but I’m just trying to be calm and have fun, too.”