April 5, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (AP) Notre Dame isn’t planning business as usual this Final Four.
Coach Muffet McGraw realized after the Fighting Irish clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title for a second straight season that the team didn’t seem to celebrate much. Then it happened again when they won the ACC tournament.
”They were excited, but then I watch other teams and they’re jumping all over the place,” she said.
The always-intense McGraw sensed her young team was taking on her ‘What’s the next challenge?’ attitude. She wants to make sure the Irish recognize how significant making the Final Four is and enjoy the experience. She is trying to get away from the ”business-like” feel of recent appearances.
”I think there is a looser feel. I think we’re enjoying it a little bit more,” McGraw said.
Players say they could sense McGraw trying to lighten up the mood in practice.
”I think she’s a little more happy and not as stressed out,” junior guard Michaela Mabrey said. ”I think she’s really sharing with us how special this is.”
The Irish (35-2) face South Carolina (34-2), which is making its first trip to the Final Four, in the first semifinal game on Sunday in Tampa, Florida. Whoever survives advances to take on the winner of the Maryland-Connecticut matchup in the second semifinal.
Notre Dame and Connecticut met in the title game last year in a showdown of unbeaten squads. Sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen believes McGraw felt more pressure last season because the Irish were undefeated.
”We expected to be there. We had senior leaders who were really focused,” Allen said. ”This year we’re kind of more loose.”
Leading scorer Jewell Loyd said the lighter atmosphere will help.
”The teams in the past we probably wouldn’t have said that, but this team plays better when we’re nice and loose and joking around and having fun,” she said.
The Irish headed into recent Final Fours with a sense of urgency.
Two years ago they were fervent to win a title for Skylar Diggins, who helped elevate the program to a new level, in her senior season. Last year the battle cry was to win one for first-team All-American Kayla McBride and third-team All-American Natalie Achonwa in their senior seasons.
The Irish have no senior starters this season and the only senior making a significant contribution, guard Madison Cable, has a season of eligibility left.
”I think maybe not having the pressure to try to win it for somebody and just play our game and have fun, I think maybe that’s going to make us a bit better and hopefully we’ll enjoy it,” McGraw said.
This year’s Irish team is the most inexperienced McGraw has had in her 28 seasons as Notre Dame coach, starting a freshman, two sophomores and two juniors, and another freshman is averaging nearly 18 minutes off the bench.
The only other time under McGraw the Irish had no senior starter was in her third year as coach in 1989-90, when the Irish started three juniors, a sophomore and a freshman and finished 23-6.
Notre Dame has six McDonald’s All-Americans, the most the school has ever had, and all are expected back next season. The Irish add three more McDonald’s All-Americans next season.
So some outside the program viewed this year as sort of an in between year, a year where the Irish would gain some valuable experience and be ready to make a run next season. This year’s team didn’t want to wait.
Even McGraw acknowledges she thought this team year’s team would ”take some lumps at some point.” She concedes she had some doubts early whether the Irish could keep their run of Final Four appearances going.
”So when we kept on winning, it just really built our confidence,” she said. ”I guess in retrospect, it was better for a young team to build the confidence of winning rather than to have a learning lesson of losing a game maybe at the end of the year.”
The Irish say they don’t feel any extra pressure because the four previous Final Four squads failed to bring home a title.
”I don’t think it adds stress, I think motivation more that we’ve gotten there but haven’t finished it out,” Mabrey said. ”We definitely want to finish it this year.”