Senior guard Kayla McBride was named to the 2013 NCAA Norfolk Regional All-Tournament Team after helping Notre Dame to its third consecutive regional title, capped by an 18-point, seven-assist performance in the Norfolk Regional final win over Duke.

Irish In The ACC: Women's Basketball

July 22, 2013

EDITOR’S NOTE: During the month of July, and Fighting Irish Digital Media are featuring a multimedia series entitled “Irish in the ACC,” giving Notre Dame fans a sneak peek at some of what they can expect in the coming days, weeks and years as a member of the ACC through the eyes of each of the various Fighting Irish sports that will compete in the conference. Today, we take a look at the Notre Dame women’s basketball program, which is among the elite powerhouses in the sport’s history with five Final Four appearances, including each of the past three seasons.

by Chris Masters (Associate Athletic Media Relations Director)

For more than three decades, Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw has developed a reputation as a creative problem solver. Whether it be walking the sidelines as a Hall of Fame head coach for the Fighting Irish, or off the court as a fan of crossword puzzles, Sudoku, trivia and other brain-teasing board games, McGraw has seldom met a challenge that she didn’t fully embrace and attack head-on.

The proof is in the results for Notre Dame, which has advanced to the NCAA Women’s Final Four on five separate occasions, including each of the past three seasons, going on to play in three national championship games (2001, 2011, 2012) and winning the 2001 NCAA title. The Fighting Irish also have won more than 71 percent of their games (790-316) during a 36-year run that counts 16 conference championships (10 regular season, six tournament), 10 25-win seasons and five 30-win campaigns among its many successes.

Most of these accomplishments have come during McGraw’s legendary 26-year career under the Golden Dome, and they are all the more remarkable considering Notre Dame’s style of play seemingly evolves on an annual basis. The 1997 Final Four club punched its ticket with an injury-depleted seven-player roster that relied heavily on the inside-outside tandem of All-Americans Katryna Gaither and Beth Morgan (the latter now in her second season as associate coach on McGraw’s staff under her married name of Beth Cunningham).

In 2001, the Fighting Irish rose to the top of the college basketball world behind the famed Triangle offense. Notre Dame earned its first national championship thanks in part to the perfect blend of inside power, provided by consensus National Player of the Year Ruth Riley, and the dynamic backcourt of All-America point guard Niele Ivey (now Notre Dame’s assistant coach and recruiting coordinator) and sharpshooting wing Alicia Ratay, who remains the NCAA’s all-time leader in three-point percentage (.476), including a .547 mark during that title-winning season.

In recent years, Notre Dame has moved to a more up-tempo style, mixing a frenetic pressing defense and quick-strike transition game with a Princeton-based offense that capitalizes on the athleticism that now fills its roster from top to bottom. The Fighting Irish have been among the nation’s leaders in numerous offensive and defensive categories during that time, most notably ranking among the top 10 in the country in scoring offense each of the past three seasons, including the 2012-13 season when they averaged a school-record 81.2 points per game and finished second in the nation in that category for the second year in a row.

Notre Dame also has been nearly second to none when it comes to its success rate since 2009-10, ranking second in the nation in victories with a combined 130-20 (.867) record in that four-year period. That span also has featured five different players earning All-America honors at every court position, led by two-time BIG EAST Conference Player of the Year Skylar Diggins, 2012 WNBA first-round draft picks in forward Devereaux Peters and wing Natalie Novosel, and a pair of current seniors in forward Natalie Achonwa and wing Kayla McBride.

Perhaps a less well-known characteristic of McGraw’s tenure at Notre Dame has been her uncanny ability to successfully guide her teams through transitions to new conferences. In just her second season with the Fighting Irish in 1988-89, she led the program into the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now known as the Horizon League) and would oversee perhaps the most dominant run by one school in that league’s history. In that seven-year stretch, Notre Dame posted an 87-15 (.853) record in MCC play, going on to win 10 of a possible 14 league titles (five regular season, five tournament).

In 1995-96, McGraw piloted the Fighting Irish into the BIG EAST, where Notre Dame would again prove to be among the conference elite, going 232-64 (.784) in an 18-year membership to record the second-best winning percentage in the history of a conference that dates back to 1982. The Fighting Irish culminated their BIG EAST career in grand style in 2012-13 with the second of back-to-back regular season championships (and third overall), as well as the program’s first BIG EAST Tournament title, thanks to a 61-59 victory in the championship game at Connecticut on Achonwa’s layup with 1.8 seconds remaining.

Since the start of the 21st century, Notre Dame also has emerged as one of the top draws in women’s college basketball, with the Fighting Irish placing among the top 16 in the final NCAA attendance rankings every season. In that time, Notre Dame has increased its average attendance by more than 160 percent, from 3,392 fans per game in 1999-2000 to a school-record 8,979 fans per game in 2012-13. The Fighting Irish also have attracted 36 sellout crowds to Purcell Pavilion during that 13-year span (including 30 in the past four seasons alone) and have drawn at least 5,000 fans to 190 of their last 192 home games, a stretch covering the entirety of their 21st-century attendance growth.

Senior forward Natalie Achonwa came off the bench to contribute 18 points and seven rebounds in Notre Dame’s 2012 NCAA Raleigh Regional final win over Maryland.

So now the challenge begins anew for McGraw and Notre Dame, who enter their inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), a league that has been among the nation’s strongest for many years, highlighted by a pair of national championships (North Carolina in 1994 and Maryland in 2006) and 14 Final Four appearances (the most recent being North Carolina in 2007). The Fighting Irish immediately move to the front of the line in terms of ACC members with the most NCAA title game appearances (three) and Final Four berths (five), already standing one of only seven programs in NCAA Division I history to accomplish either of those feats.

This past season, the ACC sent five teams to the NCAA Championship (with four ranked in one or both major national polls at year’s end), including regular-season champion Duke, which advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to Notre Dame in the Norfolk (Va.) Regional Final, and Sweet 16 participant Maryland, which was eliminated by eventual national champion Connecticut in the Bridgeport (Conn.) Regional Semifinals. Besides the Fighting Irish, fellow incoming member (and former BIG EAST compatriot) Syracuse qualified for last year’s NCAA Championship, as did future ACC member Louisville (which joins the conference in 2014-15), with the Cardinals toppling Baylor en route to their second NCAA national runner-up finish (the other coming in 2009).

The ACC began sponsoring women’s basketball in 1977-78, the same season Notre Dame achieved varsity status as an AIAW Division III program, playing three years at that level before rising to Division I as an independent in 1980-81 and joining the NCAA a year later when that organization first sponsored a women’s basketball championship.

In the 36-year history of ACC women’s basketball, Duke and Virginia have been the standard bearers, with the Blue Devils earning 12 regular-season titles (nine outright, three shared) and the Cavaliers taking 11 crowns (10 outright, one shared). However, Duke has been the leader of late with each of its championships coming since 1997-98 (including all or part of the past four), while Virginia claimed its most recent ACC regular-season hardware in 1999-2000.

Four other schools have won or shared multiple ACC titles, led by five each for Maryland (three outright, two shared, with only one title since 1988-89) and North Carolina State (all outright, but none since 1989-90). North Carolina has four championships, including three in a four-year stretch from 2004-05 to 2007-08, while Florida State recently was an ACC regular-season co-champion in back-to-back seasons (2008-09 and 2009-10). Clemson earned an outright title in 1980-81, while Miami emerged as a rising challenger in the conference with a piece of the crown in 2010-11.

Unlike its previous home in the BIG EAST, Notre Dame will enjoy the benefit of playing a conference tournament at a completely neutral site, as the ACC Championship is contested at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, its home since 2000, and slated residence through at least the 2014-15 season.

The ACC tournament began in the conference’s inaugural women’s basketball season of 1977-78, with Maryland having a league-high 10 postseason crowns to its credit (the most recent coming in 2012). North Carolina is next on the list with nine ACC tournament trophies (plus nine runner-up showings), followed by defending champion Duke, which won its eighth title (and third in four years) back in March. N.C. State has earned four ACC postseason championships (along with a remarkable 11 runner-up finishes), while Virginia has won the tournament three times and Clemson twice.

In an impressive show of the ACC’s depth, the other six league schools (Boston College, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest) all have reached the ACC Championship semifinals at least once since 2006. Georgia Tech has come the closest to breaking through and joining the ACC championship sorority with runner-up finishes in both 1992 and 2012.

Next season, the ACC will feature some of the nation’s brightest stars, including six All-Americans — in addition to Notre Dame’s Achonwa and McBride, Duke’s Chelsea Gray and Elizabeth Williams, Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas and Georgia Tech’s Tyaunna Marshall all return for the 2013-14 campaign. The conference also boasts many of the country’s most successful coaches, including McGraw (eighth among active Division I coaches with 714 wins) and North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell, a member of both the Naismith and Women’s Basketball halls of fame with 908 career wins (more than any active coach and second all-time behind only Tennessee’s Pat Summitt).

What’s more, the ACC has been the home of some of the legendary coaches in women’s basketball history, including Virginia’s Debbie Ryan (10th in Division I with 739 wins from 1978-2011, including three consecutive Final Four appearances from 1990-92, and a seven-time ACC Coach of the Year) and the late Elon and North Carolina State coach Kay Yow (11th in Division I with 737 wins from 1972-2009, including a Final Four berth in 1998).

Notre Dame has built a strong foundation of success against ACC teams as it moves into the conference this fall. The Fighting Irish have a combined 91-22 (.805) record against the new ACC membership (88-16, .846, in the McGraw era), not including their 10-4 mark against Louisville. Furthermore, Notre Dame has a winning record against 10 of the other 12 ACC schools it previously has faced — the exceptions being Maryland (2-4 all-time) and Virginia (0-2) — while it will play Clemson and Florida State for the first time during the coming 16-game conference season (for which the matchups were announced in May, headlined by Notre Dame’s home-and-home series with Duke).

Factoring in matchups with fellow ACC newcomers/former BIG EAST members Pittsburgh and Syracuse, Notre Dame has won its last 13 games against ACC programs. This current run is highlighted by wins over Maryland (80-49) and Duke (87-76) in the NCAA Championship regional final (Elite Eight) the past two seasons.

The Fighting Irish enter the ACC full of promise with two returning All-Americans in Achonwa and McBride, plus the reigning United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) National Freshman of the Year in guard Jewell Loyd, but Notre Dame will face a challenging set of obstacles in the ACC. From unfamiliar surroundings and strange travel schedules, to unique opponent playing styles and the creation of new rivalries along with the rebirth of old acquaintances, the Fighting Irish are poised to encounter a season unlike any it has seen in nearly two decades.

To be certain, the puzzle that makes up Notre Dame’s women’s basketball future in the ACC is unfinished, as though its pieces are scattered across a kitchen table in a home down on Tobacco Road. However, if history is a guide, the Fighting Irish have the ideal leader in place, someone who knows what the final picture will look like, with the ability and the ingenuity to attack this latest challenge, further adding to the ACC’s reputation as one of the nation’s elite women’s basketball conferences, while enhancing Notre Dame’s place among the sport’s powerhouse programs.

— ND —

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our Irish in the ACC series continues Wednesday with a look at the Notre Dame golf programs.