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ND Women’s Basketball

McGraw retires after first losing season since 1991

| Friday, May 15, 2020

Just two years ago, Arike Ogunbowale etched a couple of memories into every Notre Dame fan’s heart that will last a lifetime and never fail to produce goosebumps or tears. Notre Dame had won a national title.

The next year they were back on the same stage with their third national title just one game away. Baylor star forward Lauren Cox went down with a knee injury. The Bears lost a 17-point lead and the game was all square with just 10 seconds remaining. Chloe Jackson hit a layup to give the Bears the lead with 3.9 seconds on the clock. Ogunbowale found herself at the foul line with 1.9 remaining, still down two. She missed the first after it rattled around the rim, and then Irish Naismith Hall of Fame head coach Muffet McGraw told her to miss the second. She made it. Notre Dame lost what would have been their second National Championship in as many years by one point and a weird bounce.

The Irish made history in the 2019 WNBA Draft after all five of their starters were drafted within the first 20 picks. Jackie Young had one year of eligibility left, but she turned into the first pick in the draft, with her path paved for Las Vegas. Ogunbowale was picked fifth and joined another Notre Dame legend, Skylar Diggins-Smith, in Dallas. Brianna Turner was drafted by the Atlanta Dream but was traded to the Phoenix Mercury. Jessica Shepherd headed to Minnesota and Marina Mabrey rounded out the field with the 20th pick, as the program’s 3-point record holder, made her way out to Los Angeles.

That was last year. Although they fell just shy of a national title, it was arguably the best year for the program on record.

Now if the 2020 season would have proceeded as normal, it is pretty safe to say that the Irish, for the first time in 24 years, would not have made it to the NCAA Tournament, as they finished with a 13-18 record. The last time McGraw finished a season with a record under .500 was 28 years ago in 1991; even then the Irish were able to win their conference tournament and advance to the national tournament. This past season the Irish were defeated in the first round of the ACC Tournament by a 5-26 Pitt team.

Hannah Huelskamp | The Observer
Irish rising senior forward Mikayla Vaughn (left) and rising sophomore forward Sam Brunelle (right) look to get a defensive stop during Notre Dame’s 76-53 win over Miami (Fl.) on Jan. 19 at Purcell Pavilion.

Losing all five starters is certainly challenging, but only one of them had the option to return. Ogunbowale may have had a trick up her sleeve in 2018. Nonetheless in her postgame interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe after her second-consecutive game-winning heave and her national title-winning 3-pointer, the final question Rowe asked Ogunbowale was, “You guys have so much adversity. What do you think, at the end of the day, is inside of your team that allowed you to be here for this moment?” 

“Coach McGraw recruits players like this — actually I have a shout-out. If anybody is thinking what school to go to — go to Notre Dame. This is what we do. National champs right here,” Ogunbowale said.

She hugged and danced with her mother and seconds later the broadcast cut to commercial. This is what hundreds, if not thousands, of recruits around the country saw two years ago. Notre Dame had just made their first College Football Playoff; despite falling short to a perennial powerhouse in Clemson, they were already in the spotlight. And then Ogunbowale and company lit a fire in March. 

The Edmund P. Joyce Center played home court to its first national champions in 2000. The Irish didn’t reach the Final Four again in that decade. But in 2011 the Irish beat Tennessee to make it back to the Final Four, this time at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, practically their backyard. After defeating UConn, the Irish fell to Texas A&M in the championship by a six-point margin. They reached the Final Four again in 2012 and 2013 but were unable to prevail. The next two years after that, they would yet again be runners-up. After a two year hiatus from a Final Four appearance, Notre Dame managed to win it all in 2018 and managed to make it back the following year to be named runners-up again.

Notre Dame had never really gone away, but they had finally put themselves back on the map. From 2010 through 2019, McGraw did not record a single season where she did not win more than 30 games. In the ACC era beginning in 2013 through 2019, she remained undefeated in the conference two of those years. The most losses she ever recorded in the ACC in one season? Two in 2018. Notre Dame did not go a single year finishing worse than No. 1 in the ACC until 2019. They remained at the top spot for nearly a decade — until they went 8-10 in conference play this past season.

Notre Dame was already a household name, but McGraw was proving that she was not only the best women’s basketball coach in America, but she may also very well be one of the best coaches in America. And then things took a turn for the worst.

Before the 2019 season, former Irish star point guard and then-assistant head coach Niele Ivey also left for a bigger league: the NBA. Ivey became an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies, honing her passion at a new level. Another former Irish player with a familiar last name, Michaela Mabrey, filled her position, a position that emphasized recruiting.

On Nov. 11, Tennessee came into the Joyce Center and snapped a 49-game win streak spanning nine years the Irish had in the month of November. At the time this seemed to be but a funky stat and nothing of major concern, as Tennessee does hold the record for most consecutive NCAA berths, with 38 dating back to 1982. This game would, however, serve as a nasty precursor for what the Irish would make of the 2019-20 season. A week later, a 12-year streak ended when on Nov. 18, Notre Dame exited the AP Top 25 poll.

They would lose 17 more games. They would begin to celebrate the small victories, most of which revolved around filling the stat sheet. In their season opener, they recorded their 1,000th program victory. The 2020 recruiting class was ranked third in the nation, with then-freshmen Samantha Brunelle, Anaya Peoples and Katlyn Gilbert all being named to the ACC All-Freshman team. Brunelle, the top-ranked forward in her draft class lit a spark from the perimeter, recording 58 3-pointers on the season — the second most for a freshman in program history. Graduate transfer Destinee Walker chimed in eight 20-plus point games, joining Gilbert and Brunelle on the top-20 ACC scorers list. Florida State was the only other team that put three players on the list. 

But more important than anything else, this team showed they have faced and overcome true adversity. Peoples was the early favorite to win ACC Rookie of the Year. Before she suffered a torn right shoulder labrum, she was leading all ACC freshmen in rebounds (8.1), shooting percentage (.457) and steals (1.9), and ranked second in points (12.6), only behind Brunelle. Graduate student volleyball player Kristin Baer was brought onto the team mid-season to add length to the roster. Sophomore guard Abby Prohaska redshirted her season after she was diagnosed with bilateral pulmonary embolism, clotting of the lungs.  

Sports are not for the faint of heart, and if this Notre Dame team proved nothing else, they proved that. After so many years, so many decades, of success this team took a shot to the gut. They lost every single one of their starters to the WNBA. There was no question when the season started that this would be a “rebuilding” year. But no one could have guessed it would have been this underwhelming. Even the woman at the top: Muffet McGraw.

McGraw made headlines a year ago for her passionate answer about women in leadership and women’s empowerment. She wasn’t just encouraging women in sport; she was encouraging women to lead across the globe. She never looked stronger. She was the essence of the role model she claimed young girls were missing in their lives.

Observer File Photo
Muffet McGraw squats on the sideline as she watches her team defeat Montana 77-43 to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 20, 2015 at Purcell Pavilion.

One year later on the podium, she was fighting back tears after desperately trying to get her team on the right track, but she was still strong. The hope was still there. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, McGraw announced she was retiring. A 33-year reign as head coach of the Irish ended in the strangest of fashions amid the COVID-19 crisis. But what was admirable was that McGraw had considered the move into retirement for long before this pandemic struck. 

In true coach McGraw fashion, she didn’t leave when five of her starters declared for the draft —she could have gone out on top. But she didn’t. She waited until she felt that she was ready. In an April 22 tweet, McGraw announced she was stepping down from the position. Her protege Niele Ivey would assume the mantle. As she would say in her first online news conference as head coach, she has “big heels to fill.”

Last season may not have gone the way anyone in the program would have expected. McGraw may not be leaving the program the way she expected even in her wildest dreams, but Ivey is assuming the position next year with a clean slate, with NBA-system experience and with a love for the game that could even rival McGraw’s.

There may not be many positive takeaways Irish fans will hold near and dear to their hearts in 2019, but it is pretty safe to say that if it hasn’t already been commissioned yet, Our Lady’s campus’ first statue of a female will be commissioned soon. And Niele Ivey will most definitely have big, big sequined heels to fill.

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About Jimmy Ward

Jimmy is a senior at Holy Cross College, where he studies English and sports management. He is originally from Westfield, Indiana. Currently, Jimmy serves as an associate sports editor at The Observer. You can find him at @jimmyyward on Twitter.

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