Nov. 11, 2005
By Chris Masters
March 28, 1997, represented a crossroads in the history of the Notre Dame women’s basketball program. On that afternoon, the Irish, led by All-Americans Beth Morgan and Katryna Gaither and piloted by head coach Muffet McGraw, realized a collective dream when they took the floor at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum against Tennessee in the NCAA Final Four.
Several rows up in the stands at the arena, a 13-year-old girl from Dayton, Ohio, watched intently as Notre Dame’s players, clad in their familiar blue and gold, put forth a scrappy, determined effort against one of the traditional powers in women’s college basketball. The Irish would fall short on that day, 80-66, but in Megan Duffy’s eyes, Notre Dame had become her dream school, the place she wanted to go in order to continue her education, both in the classroom and on the court.
“There was just something about the way the team played, the way they carried themselves on the floor and the way Coach McGraw was on the sidelines that got me interested in Notre Dame,” Duffy said. “It was a real combination of things, to be honest. Once I saw them in person at the Final Four, I was positive that’s where I wanted to go.”
Four years later, Duffy and the Irish crossed paths again, this time in St. Louis at the 2001 NCAA Final Four. Both were more polished than the last time they had met up, with Duffy having evolved into a standout point guard at Dayton’s Chaminade-Julienne High School, one of the country’s top prep girls’ basketball squads. In addition, she was a veteran of the Dayton Lady Hoopstars AAU program, having signed on at the age of 10 and ultimately guiding the Lady Hoopstars to three AAU national titles (1996, 1998, 2000) and six Ohio AAU crowns (1996-2001).
Meanwhile, Notre Dame was in the midst of climbing its way to college basketball’s summit. Using the same determined, tough-minded style of play that had paid dividends four years earlier, the Irish rolled to a 34-2 record and the school’s first-ever NCAA championship in women’s basketball. With Duffy once again in attendance at the NCAA Final Four, Notre Dame rallied from double-digit deficits in both the national semifinals and title game, clinching the championship on Ruth Riley’s two free throws with 5.8 seconds to play.
Later that fall, the Irish coaching staff had scheduled its official recruiting visit to Duffy’s home in Dayton. Worried that the Notre Dame contingent might have trouble finding their way to her house, Duffy tied a handful of blue, gold and green balloons to a nearby street light with a sign reading “National Champions” and an arrow pointing the right direction. Little did they know at the time, but that arrow also pointed squarely at the future of the Irish women’s basketball program.
“Having been a point guard myself when I was in college, I think I’m a little tougher on evaluating them than any other position,” McGraw said. “I look for someone I can roll the ball to, let her take control on the floor, and then roll the ball back to me in four years. When I first saw Megan playing high school and AAU ball, I knew she was the kind of point guard we had to have in our system.”
Ranked among the nation’s top high school point guards entering her senior season at Chaminade-Julienne, Duffy signed with Notre Dame in November 2001 and subsequently guided her CJHS to the top of the USA Today Super 25 rankings for a seven-week stretch. Then, her prep career came to an abrupt end midway through her final campaign when she suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. It was the first time Duffy had to endure an injury of that magnitude that entailed an arduous and lengthy rehabilitation process.
Never one to back down from a challenge, Duffy worked diligently to get herself in shape to play for her dream team at Notre Dame as a freshman in 2002-03. She was cleared by doctors to begin practicing with the team that October, although it was another three months before she started to feel like her old self.
“I had to wear this big, bulky brace on my knee for the first couple of months of the season, which I really hated,” Duffy said. “When I was able to get rid of it, I felt as though I could finally move forward and do more to help the team.”
And help them she did, starting five times down the stretch as Notre Dame worked its way back into the NCAA Tournament. In a second-round match-up at eighth-ranked Kansas State, Duffy came off the bench to score 10 points, hitting a pair of big three-pointers and four key free throws in the final minute as the Irish stunned the Wildcats, 59-53 and returned to the Sweet Sixteen.
“When Megan made those three-pointers at Kansas State, it really showed me that she had regained all the confidence and composure that we saw during her high school days,” McGraw said. “From there, she took off like a rocket and has been constantly getting better ever since.”
Duffy nailed down the starting point guard spot prior to her sophomore season, a post she would not relinquish, having started 64 of Notre Dame’s 65 games during the past two years. As a sophomore, she more than tripled her scoring average to 9.9 points per game, more than doubled her assist output to 3.9 assists per game, and raised her assist/turnover ratio well past the break-even point from 0.94 to 1.36. It was enough to make Duffy the BIG EAST Most Improved Player, as well as an honorable mention all-conference selection, as she led the Irish to a second consecutive Sweet Sixteen berth and a near upset of fifth-ranked Penn State in the regional semifinals.
Not satisfied with her dramatic second-year improvement, Duffy spent nearly every day in the summer of 2004 inside the gym, shooting jumper after jumper and working on her ball-handling skills. It wasn’t surprising to find the 5-7 veteran walking purposefully through the Joyce Center halls on a Friday night, with a basketball tucked under one arm, and a portable stereo in the other, ready for another long solo workout session.
The hours of sweat equity Duffy poured in that summer paid off during her junior season of 2004-05, as she again raised her level of play, averaging 12.3 points, 5.4 assists and 2.7 steals per game, leading the BIG EAST in the latter two categories. She also shot a career-best .437 from the floor (.400 from the three-point arc) and set a new school record with a conference-best .895 free throw percentage, which was good for fourth in the nation. In addition, her assist/turnover ratio zoomed to 1.73, and she dished out five or more assists on 19 occasions, including four double-digit assist games. As a result, Duffy was tapped for first-team all-BIG EAST honors and was an honorable mention All-America selection by the Associated Press, as she guided the Irish to the Preseason WNIT title, a No. 3 national ranking and a second-round NCAA Tournament appearance. Coaches around the country took notice of her work ethic and it was not long before USA Basketball came calling, inviting her to try out for the U.S. World University Games Team in the summer of 2005. Duffy arrived in Colorado Springs in May, hoping simply to make a good showing at the USA Basketball trials. She did much more than that, not only earning a place on the team, but a spot in the starting lineup and a share of the captain’s duties. In August, she and her U.S. teammates traveled to Izmir, Turkey, where they rolled through the World University Games field, going 7-0 and winning the gold medal while averaging 97.4 points per game and setting an American record with a +43.1 ppg. winning margin. Duffy averaged 6.1 points and 2.1 assists in the seven-game series, leading the team in scoring twice in the preliminary round (14 vs. the Czech Republic and 13 vs. Poland).
“Playing for Team USA and winning a gold medal is one of the highlights of my life,” Duffy said. “I learned so much from getting to play on that team. We had a ton of great players and the chance to work on my game and improve my skills against the best college players in the country was an invaluable opportunity. I’m hoping that I can bring those lessons I learned back to Notre Dame and help us continue our tradition of success as one of the nation’s best basketball programs.”
Entering her senior season in 2005-06, Duffy was chosen as a preseason All-American by three media outlets and has been named to watch lists for the Wade Trophy and Wooden Women’s Award, both of which go to the country’s top women’s college basketball player. However, Duffy would trade every single award for the chance to lead Notre Dame back to the Final Four, only this time she would run on to the court wearing the familiar blue and gold Irish uniform instead of watching from the stands. In her eyes, it would be the realization of yet another dream — and perhaps another young girl will be watching from the stands, ready to follow in her footsteps under the Golden Dome.