Muffet McGraw during the NCAA second-round game against Vermont (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

McGraw Leads Notre Dame to Eighth NCAA Regional Semis

March 28, 2010

Irish NCAA Tournament Central

NOTRE DAME, Ind. (AP) – It sounds odd to hear Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw say it’s not about the wins and losses.

Ask just about anybody who knows McGraw or has played for her and one of the first things they’ll bring up is how competitive she is, how much she hates to lose whether it’s on the basketball court, the golf course or anywhere else.

“It’s contagious with her team,” said former Irish point guard Megan Duffy, now a St. John’s assistant. “When I was playing, we wanted to be as competitive as she is.”

McGraw, though, said the key, at least during the regular season, is about consistently getting better.

“It’s not about the wins and losses. It’s whether we played well and what we need to work on,” she said.

That’s why in post-game interviews she sometimes meticulously picks apart her team’s shortcomings while her players sit uncomfortably beside her. She doesn’t want her players thinking winning is good enough if they haven’t played well.

“I think if you send a message of ‘Just cause you won it was great,’ they’re going to be satisfied with mediocrity,” she said.

McGraw, 54, has built Notre Dame into a consistent national power. The Irish had never beaten a ranked team before McGraw arrived in South Bend in 1986, going 0-18 in seven seasons as a Division I program, and had never been ranked.

It took three years under McGraw for Notre Dame Dame to beat its first ranked opponent, defeating No. 20 Vanderbilt in 1990. The Irish earned their first ranking a season later and their first NCAA tournament berth the season after that.

The program took off when Notre Dame joined the Big East during the 1995-96 season, starting its streak of 15 straight NCAA tournament appearances. McGraw has a 525-202 record at Notre Dame, leading the Irish to 20 20-win seasons in her 23 seasons. She was named coach of the year in 2001 when the Irish won the national title.

With an 84-66 victory over Vermont last Sunday, the Irish moved on to their eighth NCAA regional in the past 14 years. The second-seeded Irish (29-5) will face third-seed Oklahoma (25-10) on Sunday night in Kansas City. Notre Dame used a 20-0 run in the second half to beat the Sooners 81-71 in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 28.

McGraw is beloved by loyal Irish fans, who always give a loud cheer when she steps out on the floor before every game.

“It tells you what you need to know about the relationship between our fans and our coach. She’s earned it,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said.

The Irish, who had a school-record six sellouts this season, averaged 8,377 fans per home games this year, sixth best in the nation. By comparison, the men averaged 8,402 fans.

As intense as McGraw can be, she also knows when to take pressure off. Guard Melissa Lechlitner said McGraw helped calm the Irish when they played top-ranked Connecticut for the third time this season after losing by 24 in the first game and 25 in the second. She told the players that the game in the Big East conference tournament didn’t really matter much because it wouldn’t affect them heading into the NCAA tournament.

“It really just gets you to calm down and not put so much on one game,” Lechlitner said. “She just has a way of making things not so stressful, but still makes you realize you have to come out and play.”

The Irish still lost to the Huskies, 59-44, but played much better.

The person who calms McGraw is her husband of 32 years, Matt.

“He knows how to make me laugh no matter how mad I am. That is a gift I am so thankful for,” she said. “We’re just like a great team together. He understands me. He understands what I’m going through when things get stressful.”

McGraw has changed her coaching style over the years. Early on, she’d spend much of her time showing players film of what they had done wrong in the previous game, with a few good plays mixed in. Now she does the opposite, showing mostly highlights.

“I think you have to adjust to the generation. This is a generation of a lot of positive reinforcement,” she said.

She emphasizes that even more during the NCAA tournament. When the Irish got off to a slow start in the tournament opener against Cleveland State, turning the ball over 10 times in the first half and allowing the smaller Vikings to get into the paint for 20 points, she was nothing but calm in the locker room.

In the tournament, winning is all that matters.

“Survive and advance,” McGraw said. “It’s a very different situation.”

Spoken like a true competitor.