Coach McGraw has led the Irish to four consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances.

IRISH EXTRA: Irish Rely On Experience Heading Into NCAA Opener

March 19, 2015

When the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team deals with the NCAA Championship mandatory press conference and media locker room availability, the Fighting Irish players know what to expect.

When the NCAA limit on 90-minute practices is imposed, the Irish aren’t fazed.

When the rule about the practice clock starting immediately if a player picks up a basketball, the Irish aren’t worried.

Notre Dame’s seniors have been through 17 NCAA Championship games. The juniors have played in 11 NCAA Championship games. The sophomores played in the maximum six games possible in the NCAA Championship, reaching the national title game.

Coach Muffet McGraw has led the Irish to four consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances.

On Friday night, when No. 1 seed Notre Dame (31-2) hosts No. 16 seed Montana (24-8), experience will be sporting Irish colors. Tip-off for the NCAA first-round game at Purcell Pavilion is set for 7:30 p.m. EDT.

“The level of comfort is so important,” McGraw said. “I think when your point guard (Lindsay Allen) is comfortable in the surroundings, it’s important. Obviously, Jewell (Loyd) is going to be comfortable. It’s her third time through. We have a lot of players who have been there before. They know the routine, so they can explain it to the younger players.”

One of the things McGraw does to help her team get used to the strict NCAA routine is to imitate it on occasion throughout the regular season.

“We used to panic,” McGraw said. “They’d put the time on the clock for practice, and we’d be like, ‘How are we going to get it all done in 90 minutes?’ It was stressful trying to rush through things.

“Now, throughout the year, we’ll say, ‘We’re going to have an NCAA practice today. Nobody touch the basketballs. It’s going to be 90 minutes.’ So they get the idea of what it’s going to be like.”

McGraw thinks Allen, who is a sophomore, will benefit in particular from last season’s run to the national championship game.

“It’s an advantage, especially when your point guard has been through it before,” McGraw said. “Last year, heading into it as a rookie and going to the national championship game was so impressive: her poise, her attitude and her demeanor. She is such a veteran even as a sophomore now, and I think when you have your point guard in a good place it settles the rest of the team down.”

Irish senior leader Markisha Wright said it’s an advantage to know what’s ahead.

“I definitely think experience is helpful when it comes to the NCAA tournament,” Wright said. “It was very valuable for me to learn from players like Natalie Achonwa, Ariel Braker, Skylar Diggins, to see how they handled the tournament and pass that along to younger players like Brianna Turner and Taya Reimer.

“I think the best advice I can give the freshmen is stay focused and stay calm,” Wright continued. “I think they’ve done a good job of that. I never really had tournament jitters because I would always look at Natalie and Ariel and see how they handled situations. I was like, well, if they’re calm, I should be calm.”

Another senior leader, Whitney Holloway, said past tournament experiences can provide motivation for the current season.

“I think experience is helpful in terms of, you know what happens when you lose and no one wants to have that feeling,” Holloway said. “It’s terrible.”

According to Holloway, the Irish seniors don’t need to say much to the freshmen about the tournament because McGraw is so good at preparing her players for March Madness.

“We have a great leader, Coach McGraw, and she knows what mindset everybody needs to have,” Holloway said. “You get that mindset in practice, and nothing really needs to be said. Everybody knows to step it up.”

Junior guard Michaela Mabrey said teams making their first trip to the NCAA Championship might have to deal with nerves.

“Experience definitely gives you an advantage,” Mabrey said. “You’re not as nervous because we’ve been through it, and we know what to expect. We know how hard it’s going to be and how much work goes into it.

“Going through the media sessions, only practicing for a certain amount of time, not picking up basketballs . . . they may not be big things, but the fact that we know all that, it’s not new for us, that helps. If it’s your first tournament, you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know that you have to do a half-hour of media the day before the game, if you pick up a basketball (during down time), it could be a violation. The coaches walk us through the steps, so they make it easier for us.”

Notre Dame assistant coach Beth Cunningham said while players can thrive without past tournament experience, it helps to have a player who has been through the tournament fires.

“Anytime you can have experience, it’s certainly something that you can benefit from,” Cunningham said. “Our returning players have been through it. They know what to expect. They can teach the younger ones what to expect and how to go through things. We have younger kids who play huge minutes for us and have not had the NCAA tournament experience, so that’s when you rely on your veterans, who have been through it and know what to expect.”

McGraw and the Irish know what to expect in the NCAA Championship. And what the rest of the tournament can expect is a Fighting Irish team that knows what it takes to reach the Final Four.

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent