Head coach Muffet McGraw is set to begin her 23rd season at Notre Dame this fall, having piloted the Fighting Irish to a 496-197 record and 16 NCAA Championship berths (including a current string of 14 in a row) during her storied career.

Muffet McGraw Press Conference Transcript (March 27)

March 27, 2008

COACH McGRAW: We’re very excited to be playing in the Sweet 16 this year. I think the thing that excites us the most is how well we’re playing right now. I think besides Charel Allen having just an outstanding game against Oklahoma, we’ve also had a lot of people really contribute with great games.

We had Becca Bruszewski and Ashley Barlow in the first game. I thought Melissa Lechlitner and Tulyah Gaines play extremely well in the second game. And I thought Erica Williamson has done an outstanding job defensively for us.

So I think we feel good about where we are defensively, and playing Tennessee is an incredible challenge for us at both ends of the floor.

Q. Obviously, you guys are no stranger to Tennessee. What did you learn about them and about your team the last time you played that might help you out this time around?

COACH McGRAW: Well, they can really shoot the ball. (laughter) I think we learned that pretty early in the (last) game. We gave up way too many threes. They shot a really good percentage. I think we were worried so much about Candace Parker we didn’t pay enough attention to the perimeter. And I think that they have so many weapons that you really can’t just go at one person and try to shut one person down. Because they are a very good team and they have a lot of people that can score. So we’ve got to look at that and try a defense that can guard a lot of people.

Q. There were stretches in that game, from what I remember, where you played them really tight. And then there were a few stretches where they want on these massive runs. Do you tell your team `if we can avoid these one or two stretches, we can be in this game’?

COACH McGRAW: Yeah, it’s a game of runs. They’re going to make some, especially with the pressure defense trying to create opportunities for them.

I think it’s very easy — they score in bunches. If we can try to eliminate some of those bunches, that’s what we have to do defensively. We have to be able to run transition defense a little bit better than what we did in the last game. We have to handle the pressure a little bit. We cannot turn the ball over. I think there are things we can do to help ourselves.

Q. You played four out of the top seven teams in the country this year. How much does that help looking back now that you’re here?

COACH McGRAW: It would have been nice to beat one of them. (laughter) That would have given us a little more confidence. At least we know what we’re up against. We know the caliber of competition, and we’re very familiar with that obviously having played Tennessee and the other teams as well. I think it gave us a measuring stick and we did get a little better by the time we got to Rutgers, when I thought we were playing a lot better.

Q. As well as you played on Tuesday (against Oklahoma), how much better do you think you will have to play to get win?

COACH McGRAW: We’re going to have to play a great game. I think there’s no question everybody needs to step up and play a great game. For us to be successful, we’ve got to make the commitment defensively, which we have been doing.

I’m pleased with where we are defensively, but that’s a big part of it. I think we have to really come in and be ready to battle.

Q. You’ve been in this position a number of times before but it has been a few years. Do you forget sometimes how exciting it is?

COACH McGRAW: I don’t think you forget how exciting it is. But I’m just so happy for this team to be able to experience this. I didn’t even realize that it’s been four years and the seniors had not been in the Sweet 16. I felt like we’ve been going pretty frequently up until that point. I think for them it’s such a great feeling to look at the underclassmen and know you have this to look forward to every year and now you get some experience at the next level.

Q. You mentioned you think they’re (Notre Dame) playing some of the best basketball right now. Again, how important is that knowing where you want to be?

COACH McGRAW: It’s great to be peaking at the right time. I think it gives us all confidence, especially having a close win and being able to come back — having the lead, losing the lead, coming back. I think we’ve seen just about every situation that we’re going to see, so I think we’ve gained valuable experience as well as a lot of confidence.

Q. What happened the last couple games? Was it a sense of urgency? Was it maybe just a light coming on to help the team?

COACH McGRAW: I think a lot of it was with our defense and our press. I think we’ve been able to get some runs together, and we’ve been able to make some runs and get people 6-0 or 8-0, and I think that’s been really good for to us to do that. I also think the commitment to rebounding has been a little bit different.

Certainly in the SMU game we really had worked very hard. We had 24 offensive rebounds and that was one of the highs of the season.

I think we’ve really just gotten a little bit better. Having the right combination in the game, different people. I think the chemistry is really working.

When you play a lot of people, it’s hard to get that chemistry too early. So I think right now we feel really good about no matter who’s on the floor we’re going to play well together.

Q. When you guys score in the low 60s, it seems like you’re struggling. But in this game, you probably don’t want an 80- or 90-point game against Tennessee.

COACH McGRAW: No, absolutely not. We can’t run with them. I think they’re just too high-powered an offense for us.

You know, we really have to be selective with how we play. And I think we have to do a really good job of taking care of the ball, making sure we get shots.

But our game is — we do like to run. We like to press. And so somewhere in between there we’ve got to figure out a way that we can play the tempo that we want.

Q. That first game has to serve as motivation, but I don’t think you can put them up there as Goliath in this game. You guys have to feel as though you have a game plan that can work against them.

COACH McGRAW: Absolutely. We have a lot of respect for Tennessee and what they’ve done, but we cannot come into the game feeling intimidated.

Q. Coach, how much does it help having those two seniors (Charel Allen and Tulyah Gaines)? We talked about it all week. Obviously when you play them the first time, it’s in the regular season, but now they’re playing with their backs against the wall and they’re stepping up in the biggest times in the past two games.

COACH McGRAW: They really are. I think Tulyah and Charel have a great sense of urgency. Tulyah has had that all year long. She has been the driving force of the team. She is the heart and soul of our group. She gives us energy and makes us go.

I think right now seeing that any game could be the last one, it really brings even more of a sense of urgency. I think that’s communicated to the rest of the team. I think they are playing hard for the rest of the seniors.

Q. Talk about Charel Allen, especially that game Tuesday night (vs. Oklahoma) and what she brought, and how well she fought that entire game and these two games combined.

COACH McGRAW: Charel really took the team on her back. I think she decided she wanted to win. If that meant she had to shoot the ball every time she was willing to do it. I think she was really demanding the ball, which is something she hasn’t done all season long. It was great to see her in that kind of role. She wanted the ball. She wanted to shoot the ball. She wants it at the end of the game and I think that’s important for the rest of the team.

But at the same time, I don’t think anybody on the team felt like they weren’t able to shoot the ball. So I think there were other people scoring and doing other things because we are not a one man team.

Q. When you talk about not worrying about them thinking (Tennessee is) this great team that you cannot beat, do you kind of, when you are talking to your kids, not talk about the previous games too much because you want to focus on where you are now?

COACH McGRAW: We’ll show some highlights from the game that we played earlier and see `here’s where we got better, here are ways we can get better, and here’s some things we have to do this time.’ So I think that will serve as good motivation for us.

Q. Against Tennessee the first time, you guys really struggled to get out to their shooters. How far has your perimeter defense come from that point?

COACH McGRAW: Hopefully it’s come a long way, because we’re going to need it to come a long way. We haven’t played a team that shoots the three as well as they do with so many different people.

Oklahoma shot the ball really well from the three point line, which is maybe uncharacteristic of them. But when teams come in with really good shooters we do struggle to get out and guard them. I think that’s something we’ve been working on in the past couple weeks. We’re getting better at it.

We just have to get that attitude of, we’re going to get out and guard the three point line. I think we’re too worried about inside.

Q. Does it help you guys, hurt you guys, the fact that they saw you, you saw them last week in the NCAA tournament. At least from the way it’s set up now, that doesn’t always happen.

COACH McGRAW: I thought it was interesting that we were able to watch their games and of course, they got to see ours as well. We got to see a lot of different things, a lot of different ways they played. They looked really good against Purdue. I thought their pressure was excellent. It gave us a chance to really watch them and see some things. And the girls didn’t get to see any of the games, but we do have the films so we’ll be to break those down.

Q. For you, what has this season been like? Has this kind of been a different type of season since you have been to this point since ’04?

COACH McGRAW: Last year was a season where we were picked 11th in the BIG EAST and we ended up getting to the second round of the NCAA tournament and give North Carolina a pretty good game and left that season feeling like we overachieved. We felt like this year we really wanted to take that next step to get to the Sweet 16. We felt like during the regular season we really had a great year.

I think looking back we had almost exactly the year we had hoped for in almost every way. You know, expecting to lose some games, but certainly this is our best record in a few years.

And to get to this point in the tournament, where we’re playing in the Sweet 16, I think we feel like we’ve really accomplished something. But we don’t feel like `that was our goal now we’re done’. We feel like we are … you know there’s four games left and we can see where we can go.

Q. For you, personally, though, was this an important season just confidence-wise, to say that you personally could get back to this point?

COACH McGRAW: I think it was rewarding in that to see, because the program had been at such a high level and we’ve been to so many Sweet 16’s, we almost were expecting it was just going to continue to happen. When it didn’t in the past couple years, we really started to look a little differently at recruiting and some things we need to do better and how can we get better. So I think it’s kind of a major step forward us for to get back to where we thought we belonged.

Q. When did that change for you? Did that change when you brought (Ashley) Barlow and that class in? Was it before then?

COACH McGRAW: I think that was a great class. I don’t think there’s any question they have a high impact on what we’re doing. Lindsey Schrader, I think, is one of the best players we’ve recruited. She was a top 10 McDonald’s All American. We’ve tried to get them every year.

We got Ashley Barlow then Devereaux Peters, so I think we need to try to get those kind of players, at least one in every class.

Q. For you, though, was it the same type of thing where you switched that? Was that mentally where you thought `I have to go after a different type of player’?

COACH McGRAW: No, I don’t think so. I think we kind of looked at the way we were recruiting and decide to concentrate on the Midwest more. We were all over the country recruiting. A lot of girls like to stay close to home. So their family can see them play. So it was really getting harder to get those kids from far away to come out here. And so we decided there’s so many good players right here in the Midwest, we need to concentrate there.

Q. And with Barlow, obviously you lose Allen and Gaines whenever the season ends, do you kind of tell her `hey watch them a little more closely, because next year, we’re going to need you to do what she did, what she did and what she did’?

COACH McGRAW: Yeah. We definitely like them to look up and see what the role models ahead of them are doing and how they’re handling situations, how they’re handling the pressure of the close game, and what we’re they’re doing in the locker room, and how they’re preparing the team and helping the team. Especially Lech (Melissa Lechlitner) and Barlow because they’re going to be the point guard and they’re certainly going to be two of the leaders in the future. And we want them to see exactly what’s going on with Charel and that.

Q. Have you stressed that to them?

COACH McGRAW: More with Lech, I think about the leadership role. I think Ashley is doing a really good job of just watching and learning.

Q. When you look at the future and the fact Ashley playing the way she is, is that kind of an `all right, we’ll be okay’ type of thing?

COACH McGRAW: I think every year you are going to lose good players and you hope the freshmen coming in are going to be good players. And you hope the players you have will improve. That’s something we’ll work hard on in the summer.

When you get to this point in the season and look back and say you went to the Sweet 16 maybe you got a further it’s a lot easier to motivate them to get better.

Q. How do you deal with the national mindset that nobody seems to be giving you a chance?

COACH McGRAW: I think it’s good for us. We’re pretty good in the underdog role, and I think it’s one that it takes the pressure off of you. But at the same time you are going to feel a little bit of pressure because this is a big game. It’s a big game for all of us. And certainly everybody’s talking about Tennessee going to the Final Four. And they were one of everybody’s choices to get back and to win it again. They’re the defending champions. And, you know, they’ve had a great season.

Q. How good is Candace Parker? You hear Coach Summitt talk about her and she puts her as one of the greatest players to ever play college basketball. Do you see her in that role?

COACH McGRAW: I think she definitely is somebody that can change the game. I think she is the most talented player, especially with her size. She can do so many things. She can handle the ball and play like a guard and she can pass. I think the fact that she’s just so athletic. She has so many just God-given talents and skills that she’s really a remarkable player and I think she’ll be very successful at the next level, too.

Q. When you saw her in high school, did you see her becoming this, or has she maybe even surpassed what you thought she might be?

COACH McGRAW: I think everybody saw that’s what she would become. I think the way Pat plays her at Tennessee has really helped her game. I think she’s really developed into a really good player.

Q. Does the game plan allow for, `hey we know she’s going to get her points; let’s keep A, B, and C from beating us because we know she’s going to do what she does’?

COACH McGRAW: Yeah. The problem with Tennessee I think they’re all going to get their points. (laughter) So we’ve got to make a stand somewhere. That’s what we’ll have to decide.

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