ND Women’s Basketball
Irish pull off miracle, win national championship
Elizabeth Greason | Friday, May 18, 2018
It started out as unlikely.
Then it became improbable.
And it began to look impossible.
And soon the idea that Notre Dame could win, or even compete for a national championship became outrageous for much of the world.
And then the Irish (35-3, 15-1 ACC) pulled off a miracle.
Notre Dame’s season was a narrative of two extremes — both of which were played out on the national stage — but it ended on the highest note possible: the program’s second national championship, a 61-58 last-second win over Mississippi State, in what was Irish head coach Muffet McGraw’s 800th career win at Notre Dame.
However, the path to the title was about as far from smooth as imaginable, beginning with the loss of All-American senior forward Brianna Turner, who tore her ACL in March 2017, and redshirted her senior season, making a national championship look unlikely.
The Irish took their next hit before the season started when senior guard Mychal Johnson tore her ACL in practice. Improbable.
And once freshman center Mikayla Vaughn tore her ACL in practice in November, it began to look impossible, as the team was down to eight healthy scholarship players.
But outrageous happened when graduate student guard Lili Thompson tore her ACL — Notre Dame’s fourth of the year — on Dec. 31, leaving the Irish without a point guard, no scholarship guards on the bench and only 10 players on the roster, including walk-ons Maureen Butler and Kaitlin Cole, who joined the squad in September, and freshman guard Nicole Benz, who was brought on before winter break so that the squad would be able to play five-on-five without the men’s practice squad. The fourth tear even prompted Turner to tweet that it would be worth bringing in ESPN’s Sport Science to examine how one team could possibly lose four players to season-ending ACL tears in one year.
“I’ve asked myself that question … how did we ever get there after — you know the beginning of the year we had high hopes and then Brianna Turner was not ready and we were OK. We got [junior forward] Jessica Shepard and we have Mikayla Vaughn, we’re good,” McGraw said. “And then Mikayla went down and then Mychal Johnson and then when Lili went down, that was hard. Because Mychal Johnson was going to help at the point guard position. She’s our best defender. Lili took over as a very good point guard who led us in assists and steals and was a great defender, so we had to rely on — of course [junior guard Marina Mabrey] was going to do some of it, but we didn’t think she’d have to do all of it — and in January we were trying to make [sophomore guard Jackie Young] the backup point guard.
“So, it was difficult, but I think the thing that with this team, what we talked about as people would go down was that our goals haven’t changed. Nothing’s changed. Our goal is still going back to the Final Four, to win a national championship, but man it was hard. This season was hard with everything, with the ACLs of course, but then with [senior forward] Kathryn Westbeld getting the eye, the giant black eye, and wondering if she’s going to play the next game, and Jackie breaking her nose and Kat spraining her ankle. It just seemed like it was a constant stream of knockdowns. We’re getting a knockout punch and are we going to get back up?”
McGraw said the attributes of the squad this year were atypical of years past, but its ability to rally together in times of hardship was what allowed it to succeed against the odds.
“That was the resilience of this team to show they just kept getting back up and they wouldn’t be denied, which was kind of unusual for us. We’re not really a team that’s been a come-from-behind kind of team,” she said. “We usually handle a lead pretty well, but we were a very different kind of team. We went to the two-three zone, but it was all them. They just fought and battled and a lot of it was Marina Mabrey. She had that fight in her that was really contagious to the rest of the team.”
There were points in the season when, in retrospect, McGraw said she thought the team might not even make the NCAA tournament. But it the team’s fighting spirit and determination that McGraw said allowed it to make a midseason turnaround after the Irish were routed by Louisville, 100-67, in January.
“We got embarrassed at Louisville and that was the wakeup call. We had to look in the mirror and say, ‘Is this us? Is this where we’re heading?’ It was humiliating to lose that way on national TV. Worst loss in program history,” McGraw said. “And just really a gut check in a lot of ways and to come out the very next game at home and we’re down 23 to Tennessee. So, it was really a time for us to decide at that moment, what does our future look like. And fortunately, we came together in that game.
“And we weren’t committed to defense. We really weren’t. We were like, eh, we’re gonna outscore people. And then suddenly that wasn’t working anymore. So, I think they made the commitment to defend and that was what turned our season around.”
While the team sits down at the start of each season and set their goals for the year — a process the players complete on their own, in which McGraw has no input — she said she gauges the success of each season based on whether or not she, personally, feels the team has met its potential at the end of the year.
“For me, every season is different and the success, to me, is determined by, did you reach your potential,” she said. “There are some years when we don’t get to the Final Four but we played really well, but we played a little over our heads. And then there are years when you get to the Final Four and you lose, but that was the best that team could have done. But each year’s different. This year we overachieved.
“I mean, to get where we got — I thought this was, we have to get to the Sweet 16, that’s kind of an expectation level for this program. You’re going to get to the Sweet 16 and then see what happens with your bracket. So, for this team to win it all, what a phenomenal accomplishment and definitely really overachieved.”
The 2018 Final Four has been lauded as one of the best of all time with two overtime wins in the Final Four and junior guard Arike Ogunbowale’s two game-winning shots. The entire Irish squad rose to celebrity status overnight, but looking to next season, McGraw thinks the team will be prepared to handle being the team to beat.
“I think they’re going to handle it well because I think our leadership will be strong. We’ll have four seniors. They’ve been there before and Bri, even though she wasn’t there this year, she’s been to the Final Four, so they’ve all been there and I think they know what it takes,” she said. “I think we’ve got to embrace the target on our back, which I think they’ll do a lot better than I will. They’re much better at that than I am and there’s pressure, but I think a lot of it’s self-imposed. You can’t think about that, you have to think about, really the journey, not the outcome.”
However, next season, the Irish will find themselves without four graduating players in Westbeld, Johnson, Thompson and graduate student forward Kristina Nelson.
“Kathryn, she’s a huge loss just because she was a really good leader for us and she’s the kind of player that was going to fill up the stat sheet with a lot of other things. She was a team player who takes charges. She would get the big rebound. She was really smart. We called her the glue of the team,” McGraw said. “ … So you have to have somebody like that on the court when you have a lot of people that can score, you need somebody that’s not thinking about I need to score, so we’re really going to miss her.
“And then, Kristina Nelson, fantastic senior year. What a way to go out. She played great basketball. She was really instrumental in the Tennessee game to turn the season around and throughout the tournament. She had so many big games. And same as Kat, just so unselfish, just take the charge, get the rebound, play good defense, be a good passer. How can I contribute to the team? I think those two are huge losses in our team chemistry in the way our offense works.
Not having Mychal Johnson all year was just hard, but she did a really good job on the bench, helped us a lot and Lili made a great contribution for the 15 games that she was here, but it’s hard to lose so many.”
The Irish will not take much time to rest on their laurels, though. They will be taking a European tour this summer, which McGraw believes will give the team a chance to try out some new schemes, since it will hopefully be playing at full strength for the first time in a year.
“I’m looking forward to figuring out our offense. I’m already starting to look ahead and say should we run the same kind of things,” she said. “We have a different team. We’ve got four freshmen, one of them’s a point guard who needs a lot of experience, so to be able to have games, practices where we can get her indoctrinated to the offense, but also to look at running some different things. We only had seven people last year, so we weren’t pressing. We weren’t trapping. We played all zone, so now’s a chance to experiment and see what’s going to be good and do we want to press and do some different things. It gives us a great opportunity to just try some things and see is this going to be good for this team.”
So, while McGraw already looks forward to next season and defending the title, the Irish and their fans are able to look back on arguably the program’s most successful and impressive season to date.