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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish come just short of back-to-back titles as starters break records

and | Friday, May 17, 2019

Despite falling just short of a back-to-back national championship, the Irish had one of their most elite teams in program history — shattering records both individually and as a unit. Under Naismith Hall of Fame head coach Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame made a deep tournament run and sent five players to the WNBA draft, recording the most prolific scoring offense in the nation for the first time in program history, amassing 3,454 points across the season and averaging 88.6 points per game. The squad was also the best offense in program history, led by all-time leading scorer Arike Ogunbowale along with fellow starters Jessica Shepard, Brianna Turner, Marina Mabrey and Jackie Young.

The starting five led the country as the only group to have each player averaging at least 12.5 points per game, accounting for 90% of the team’s overall offense. Further, the starting unit collected 10,230 career points between themselves, setting the record for most among five starters in the history of Division I basketball — men’s or women’s — with the next closest group over 1,700 points below them. Despite facing the hardest schedule in the country, the Irish won their sixth-straight ACC regular season title, having claimed the honor every season since joining the conference in 2013.

Anna Mason | The Observer

Irish junior guard Jackie Young looks to get past her Texas A&M defender during Notre Dame’s 80-87 Sweet 16 win over the Aggies on March 30 at Wintrust Arena in Chicago.

In addition to having the best-ever scoring offense, the team broke three other records, recording program-best numbers in assists (804), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.51) and rebounds (1,726). Individually, the Irish boasted three record breakers, with three broken records among them. Most notably, Ogunbowale became Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer, finishing her collegiate career with 2,626 points between her four years. Another elite scorer, Mabrey became the leader in 3-pointers made, netting 274 in her career. On the other end of the floor, Turner became the new leader in program blocks with 372 and total rebounds with 1,048, earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors for the third time in her career along the way. The other two starters, Young and Shepard, joined Ogunbowale to secure AP All-American honors.

Going into the season looking for a repeat and entering the NCAA tournament with a No. 1 seed, the Irish had a target on their backs the entire season — something McGraw recognized.

“I thought coming into this year, it was the first time we were ever preseason No. 1, and that was a big difference for us,” she said. “I think the team handled it well — I think the workload, the intensity, I think everything was really good. We never had to worry about them ever taking the day off — they really knew what their goals were and they were really focused all year long.”

Despite their elite efforts, the Irish faltered a few times, suffering three losses throughout the regular season to UConn 89-71 on Dec. 2, to North Carolina 78-73 on Jan. 27 and to Miami 72-65 on Feb. 7.

“I thought the expectations got heavy on our shoulders at times — the Connecticut game to start with, when our expectation level wasn’t met,” McGraw said. “What we thought was going to happen didn’t happen, and we got frustrated. We learned a lot from that, we went on. Then we lost to North Carolina, kind of another bump in the road. Then losing at Miami, I just started thinking, ‘We’ve got to relax and have fun again.’ I think we were just so tense all the time, knowing that we’re supposed to win, we’ve got to win. And I think then maybe the pressure of being No. 1 was off us, because it was like, we’re not going to be the number one seed now, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot too many times.”

Regardless of a few missteps, Notre Dame had a regular season filled with thrilling moments, beating their opponents by an average of 23.6 points and recording a field goal percentage of .508, good for fourth and second nationally, respectively. With such success during the year, McGraw noted her squad was ready for the postseason, but their forward-thinking did sometimes prove to be a problem.

“We couldn’t wait until the NCAA tournament. We wanted to just get past all these regular season games — ‘Let’s just move on, let’s get to the good stuff,‘ and that I think was probably our biggest problem,” McGraw said.

Making up lost ground after their losses was extremely important, but McGraw noted it was not something any one player could do by themselves.

“I think it was a team effort,” McGraw said. “I mean, all five of them really knew. They depended on each other — it wasn’t just one person. Anybody was capable of doing great things, and I think they all realized what we needed to do.”

Although their starting five were a cohesive unit, the bench also played a key role in Notre Dame’s success this year, with players like freshman forward Abby Prohaska and sophomore forward Mikayla Vaughn playing an important part in the team’s tournament run.

“I thought Mikayla Vaughan had a great game first round,” McGraw said. “The first game she had [was] just shy of a double-double, and so I think that was great for her confidence to see what she could do coming into the season next year, kind of stepping into a bigger role this year. And then Abby Prohaska, I thought she gave us good minutes all year long, she gave us that energy off the bench, just hustle plays normally, but then she had a huge basket in the Stanford game that I thought made everybody relax. … It was such a great play and her face was lit up with joy, and I think that just took the pressure off them, and from there, we really, really played well after that.”

In the NCAA tournament, the Irish won five games to reach the final, playing in three different locations. First, in Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame took down Bethune-Cookman and Michigan State, winning 92-50 and 91-63, respectively. The squad did not have to travel far for the subsequent Chicago regional, where they bested Texas A&M 87-80 and Stanford 84-68. The Irish then made their ninth Final Four appearance — the fifth most across all teams at the Division I women’s level. In Tampa, history repeated itself as Notre Dame beat UConn in the semifinal for the second year in a row, posting a come-from-behind victory of 81-76, a win which was sealed by a block from Turner.

“Bri’s block was key,” McGraw said. “I felt like that was the turning point and there was very little time left — I think there was maybe just around a minute left. So, when she had the block and we got the ball back with the lead, I thought that was probably going to be the game.”

After besting the Huskies, the Irish advanced to their second national final in as many years to face the Baylor Bears, led by center Kalani Brown. On the big stage, Notre Dame was unable to complete their second-half comeback, ultimately falling 82-81.

“It was a great season, to come to the national championship game when everyone expected you to be there. Sometimes I think it’s harder to achieve what people expect rather than being the underdog and do what we did the year before,” McGraw said. “So, I thought it was a great accomplishment for this team to get back, to be in the game — a game we felt like we could have won, certainly could have done a couple things differently along the way. It wasn’t that last shot that we lost the game, it was what happened for 40 minutes.

“The last two years have been exceptional for this group and I’m just so proud of them. What they accomplished statistically, no one will ever do that again. They were just an amazing group. Five of them taken in the draft, I mean, they set so many records that I don’t think will ever be broken.”

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