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ND Women’s Basketball

Mulvena: Sometimes it just doesn’t work

| Tuesday, January 21, 2020

In sports, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. The chips don’t fall in your favor. The reason may not be totally apparent to the casual viewer. It may not even be completely clear to the team itself. But sometimes things just don’t quite click.

Allison Thornton | The Observer

Notre Dame freshman forward Sam Brunelle passes the ball during Notre Dame’s 72-69 loss to Michigan State on Nov. 14

For the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, unfortunately this sentiment rings true. For a program which has been a dominant force in women’s college basketball over the past 20 seasons, appearing in seven national championships and claiming two titles, things are suddenly not going as one would think. Currently 7-12 with a disappointing 2-5 ACC conference record, the Irish have struggled to recapture the momentum of last year’s national championship appearance season. And one could obviously point to the many stars and leaders Notre Dame lost last season — Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard and Jackie Young to name a few.

But surely there’s more than simply a personnel loss that can explain the woes of this season. A powerhouse program like Notre Dame, one that has clearly established its elite reputation in the eyes of serious recruits, doesn’t just stop losing talent. Sure, some recruits may not work out. Maybe one or two don’t buy in, or maybe injuries plague a certain class.

But you’d have to think this year’s Irish team has talent that, at least as a unit, could make some noise in the admittedly competitive ACC. So what’s going on? I think we ought to look to Muffet McGraw’s press conference following Notre Dame’s 90-56 blowout loss to No. 9 N.C. State on Jan. 12.

Towards the end of her time on the podium, Muffet was asked just how difficult the team’s recent stretch has been, especially in the shadow of Notre Dame’s 10-point loss to Boston College a few days prior. Muffet’s disappointment was palpable and, fighting back tears, she said, “I just … I’ve got to do better. I feel like I can fix it, but I didn’t. I’m going to keep trying, and I’m going to find an answer. I’m going to fix it.”

For a Notre Dame fan, it’s hard to watch such a respected coach and a legend of women’s college basketball appear so troubled. But those emotional few minutes are emblematic of that painful part of sports, especially one like college basketball — sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Earlier in the press conference, McGraw commented more pointedly on her personnel. It was clear McGraw has faith in the talent available to the team. But it was also clear there are certain intangibles that have gotten in the way of that talent’s manifestation.

“They were all good high school players, … and so battling through adversity is such a great life lesson that they’ve not learned yet. I’m hopeful that this experience can translate to really big things in the future because everybody goes through adversity in their life, and for these kids, they didn’t have a lot of it. We’ve handled adversity the past few years here, but they weren’t part of that,” McGraw said. “I think it’s a lesson you’ve got to learn. You have to learn how to fight back. You have to learn how to have some grit and really just continue to fight. And I think … they don’t know how to handle it, and we don’t have the leadership to say, ‘Hey it’s OK. We got beat by 40 at Louisville two years ago and won the national championship.’ We don’t have anybody that can help them get through that, and so I think it has to fall on us. But, it’s better when it comes from a player and they can say, ‘We’re going to be OK. We’re going to keep battling, and we’re going to keep fighting, and we’re going to keep practicing.’ I think we’re going to get better. It can turn at any moment. We could go to our next game and suddenly it all comes together. … I’m living on that hope.”

What is Muffet to do? This isn’t something extra practice handles. It’s not fixed with a change of routine or a new drill. It’s something the casual viewer can’t see, and it’s something any leader, even one as good as McGraw, would have immense trouble fixing. It doesn’t reflect poorly on McGraw, nor does it necessarily reflect poorly on the players. It just goes to show that, considering the complexity of college basketball and the fluctuations which come with personnel change, sometimes it’s not going to work.

“I feel like we’re good enough. I really believe that we’re good enough. And … we just haven’t had that game when everyone plays well at the same time,” McGraw said.

And for this particular team, it seems like time is a key factor. Like McGraw said, it could all click tomorrow or next week. More likely it will take some more time for this team to learn how it responds to adversity. It could come back next season with a totally new outlook, with a ton of experience under its belt, with increased chemistry and a newfound sense of its own identity and take the ACC by storm.

But for now, it seems we ought to recognize a lot of what stands in this team’s way is much more complex than the clipboard. In the meantime, we ought to celebrate the small victories, like sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert’s stellar 25-point performance during that N.C. State loss or Notre Dame’s 76-53 victory over Miami, an impressive margin no matter the opponent. Because next year, everything could be completely different.

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

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