Oct. 4, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
The distance from Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center to the American Airlines Center in Dallas is 995 miles. In its opening practice on Monday, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team took the first formal step of a journey which the Irish hopes will carry them 995 miles to Dallas, site of the 2017 Final Four.
Notre Dame returns two of the country’s elite players from 2016 in All-American forward Brianna Turner and Lindsay Allen, a finalist for the 2016 Nancy Lieberman Award as the nation’s best point guard. The Irish return a third starter from last year’s 33-2 squad in forward Kathryn Westbeld and added a pair of national high school players of the year. Irish freshman Erin Boley claimed the Gatorade National Player of the Year award while Jackie Young earned the Naismith National Player of the Year accolade in 2016.
The three-time defending ACC regular-season and tournament champions stepped eagerly onto the Purcell Pavilion court to get their 2016-17 journey underway.
“It feels great to finally get this started, Allen said. “We’ve been practicing two times a week but only for an hour each. It feels good to get a full two-hour practice in.”
“I couldn’t wait to get out here,” confessed Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame’s Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Women’s Basketball Coach. “I love practice. Every day, it’s the best part of my day.”
One thing obvious for even just the season’s first two on-court hours is how part of the pleasure McGraw feels at practice stems from not having to concern herself overly with the team’s offensive coordination as it lies in Allen’s experienced and capable grasp.
“To have a veteran point guard who’s an All-American just makes my job so much easier,” McGraw says. “I just relax when she has the ball in her hands. Everybody on the team can listen and do whatever she tells them to do. She’s so impressive in her leadership in a quiet way. She knows when to pass, when to shoot, when to pull up, when to get everybody in line. She just knows exactly what we need.”
It is a sentiment that Allen echoes.
“I know exactly what coach wants now,” says Allen, the senior from Maryland who boasts 112 career games for the blue and gold. “(McGraw) wants certain things out of her point guards. She’s tough on her point guards but she’s here to make us better. Just knowing what she wants and likes out of the offense and defense and how she likes the team to be run is really important.”
Allen’s role now is ensuring her teammates have a comparable grasp on pleasing her head coach as McGraw enters her milestone 30th season at the helm of Notre Dame. This does not just mean the team’s freshman tandem of McDonald’s All-Americans. Allen sees things which inspire confidence from up-and-down the roster.
“Last year’s freshmen are sophomores so they’re a year older and better,” Allen said. “They understand the offense and that freshman to sophomore jump is normally the biggest that you make in your college career. They’re all rearing to go. Arike (Ogunbowale), Marina (Mabrey) and Ali (Patberg) coming back are all ready to go. The sophomores and juniors from last year are more comfortable out there on the court.”
Also joining the Irish on the court are typically lofty expectations. Notre Dame’s track record of success precedes the team nationally. The Irish have the undivided attention of each of their upcoming opponents, beginning with Central Michigan on Nov. 11, as the owners of enviable streaks like 21 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and three consecutive ACC championships. However, the Irish saw a run of five consecutive Final Four trips snapped last March. That taste of disappointment still resonates with the team.
“Last year was devastating for us,” Turner said of the Sweet 16 defeat. “We took that loss hard and we’re all still feeling it. We want to come back this season and have a better outcome.”
The Irish took their first step towards erasing that memory on Monday. They took a similar second step on Tuesday morning and it will continue into Wednesday. A big leap will come when the Chippewas come to town on Veterans Day with more hurdles to follow after Central Michigan.
Day-after-day the Irish will follow the course they hope leads them to Dallas. Every dribble, every shot, every pass, every block and every steal from Monday’s inaugural Purcell Pavilion practice forwards getting the Irish one step closer to their preferred destination 995 miles away from the cozy confines of Notre Dame.
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications associate director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for Notre Dame’s women’s basketball and men’s golf teams. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.