Feb. 20, 2015
Notre Dame nation roared at Purcell Pavilion when Brianna Turner pulled off a majestic alley-oop basket on a pass from Lindsay Allen, putting the finishing touches on an 88-77 victory Jan. 19 by the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team against fifth-rated Tennessee.
Nine nights later Steve Vasturia took a stunning pass from Jerian Grant and hit a three-point dagger from the corner as the shot clock expired, giving the Fighting Irish a 76-72 lead with :22 left and bringing Notre Dame nation to its feet. Once again Irish fans roared as Notre Dame wrapped up a 77-73 victory against fifth-ranked Duke.
Notre Dame is the only school in the nation with both the men’s and the women’s basketball teams ranked this week in the Associated Press top 10. The Irish men’s and women’s basketball teams have a combined record of 48-6. The Gonzaga men’s and women’s teams are a combined 47-5, and the Kentucky men’s and women’s teams are 45-6.
Coach Mike Brey’s Irish men are 23-4 overall and 11-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, two games behind first-place Virginia.
Coach Muffet McGraw’s Irish women are 25-2 overall and 12-1 in the ACC, standing in first place by a one-game margin over Florida State and Louisville.
“I hope our fans understand what they’re getting,” Brey said. “It’s a pretty darn good year. To be a Notre Dame basketball fan this particular season, you should be really excited–and you should really be excited about March and what’s coming.”
University of Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick said there is a special pride in the way the Fighting Irish men’s and women’s basketball teams are achieving exceptional success.
“The thing you hear all the time about the two programs is that they play basketball the right way,” Swarbrick said. “I can’t tell you the number of athletic directors who say to me, ‘I love the way your teams play.’ That’s what we want Notre Dame teams to do. That ultimately is the key asset you have to use–that your kids are really smart. You certainly see that.
“The other thing you see, and it’s the thing that isn’t always there, is great team leadership. The delta for our programs between success and failure is how the student-athlete leadership is. We know what our coaches are and how good they are, but we’re getting good leadership in both of our programs and that helps a bunch.”
Notre Dame’s leadership this season has been at an All-America level.
Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant have the Irish in striking distance of an ACC championship and have been key players in an explosive offense that picked up the label ‘Dunks du Lac.’ Connaughton is a 6-5 wing who averages 13.3 points a game, while Grant is a 6-5 guard who averages 17.3 points a game.
“You just go back to Pat’s life as an athlete, his mom and dad, how they raised him, how competitive he is,” former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Digger Phelps said of Connaughton’s impact on the Irish. “You see it when he pitches. He plays basketball the way he throws that fastball at you – he doesn’t hold back. He has a will to win at both ends of the floor. Basketball is Grant’s life. He’s playing like a first-round draft pick.”
Jewell Loyd earned first-team All-America honors last season as a sophomore. The 5-foot-10 junior guard averages 20.7 points a game.
“She’s, I think, the best player in the country,” McGraw said. “She’s just so athletic. She can score from so many different areas. She’s so much fun to watch.”
Swarbrick said Notre Dame strives for excellence in every aspect.
“It reinforces the point that we’re interested in success for all of our sports,” Swarbrick said of having a men’s and women’s basketball team in the top 10. “This is a very high-profile example of it, that both teams can succeed at such a high level. It’s reinforced by the rankings of the lacrosse teams, of the soccer teams, the fencing teams. But when you do it in basketball, the country notices it more and that’s great. It’s always an important representation of our view that we just don’t distinguish between our sports, not by whether it’s male or female, not by whether it’s considered a high-profile sport or not. When you can have across-the-board success it really helps emphasize that.
“It’s great to see, and it’s hard to do. UConn has had some notable success in recent years with it, but it’s really hard to get both working together. These two programs do it exceptionally well.”
Swarbrick noted that fans at Purcell Pavilion have seen winning at an exceptional percentage. This season the Irish men and women are a combined 31-2 at home. The Irish men are 16-1 and the women are 15-1 in home games.
“How many losses would students have witnessed during their four years at Notre Dame if they went to every home game?” Swarbrick said. “It’s remarkably few. It’s unbelievable. I checked a few years ago for one four-year period, and it was seven games in four years. It’s a great environment.”
McGraw and Brey said this has been a special season.
“I think it’s great that the men are having such a fantastic year,” McGraw said. “They’re fun to watch. I really like the way they are playing. It’s really great that we’re both in the top 10. I think it gives the basketball fans in the community a lot to talk about.”
Brey praised McGraw and her accomplishment of taking the Irish to the NCAA Final Four the past four seasons in a row.
“No question, we’re so proud of what’s happening here at Notre Dame,” Brey said. “Muffet’s program has been an inspiration not only for our program, but also for all of the other teams in the athletic department with how consistently good they have been.
“We’re both in that same office complex. We cross paths. I think you’re a great support system for each other, talking basketball, knowing when they play, congratulating them, picking them up after tough losses, even though that doesn’t happen much with Muffet’s program. There’s no question when both basketball teams are going well there’s a better buzz in this town.”
McGraw said her Irish women’s basketball players have been among the most ardent supporters of the men’s team.
“I know our team really supports the men’s team,” McGraw said. “Our players are at every home game, and they’re watching them when we’re on the road. They’re excited for their success. All of the student-athletes at Notre Dame have a great camaraderie because they know how hard they have to work. They understand the sacrifices they make socially to be the best they can be in terms of their nutrition . . . making sure the academic part is covered . . . and they respect each other for that.”
Loyd said the combined success of the Irish men’s and women’s basketball teams is good for the community. She said she gets to the Notre Dame men’s games as much as she can.
“If I don’t watch it when the game is going on, I’ll watch the replay,” Loyd said. “We hang out with guys from the men’s teams. We talk hoops. I’m close with Zach Auguste. Every once in a while we give each other some shots, but it’s all friendly. It’s awesome both teams are doing well. You want to have all of your teams be successful. Being at Notre Dame you want to be at the top.”
Auguste said he goes to as many of the women’s games as he can.
“Jewell is one of my best friends,” Auguste said. “Michaela Mabrey is one of my best friends. I’m tight with all of them . . . Whitney Holloway. We love coming to see them play basketball. It’s great basketball. They can really play.
“It’s great that the fans get to see two exciting programs. They’ve been patient with us, and we really appreciate that. It’s awesome now that the fans can come and see two top 10 teams. There’s a lot of pride for Notre Dame. It means a lot to the programs. It’s a testament to the dedication and the hard work that we put in.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent