McGraw’s No. 6 Irish reloading for another Final Four run
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Muffet McGraw didn’t get into the Hall of Fame without having to solve a problem or two.
As she enters her 31st year leading Notre Dame, McGraw may be facing her toughest task yet: replacing two All-Americans, one lost to graduation and the other to injury, from a 33-4 team that came within one victory of the program’s eighth trip to the Final Four.
“Trying to put these pieces together has been really challenging,” said McGraw, who was enshrined in the hall on Sept. 8. “But it’s kind of fun because it’s been a whole new puzzle.”
The sixth-ranked Fighting Irish will be without graduated point guard Lindsey Allen, who started all 149 games she played beginning her freshman year. They also have lost shot-blocking, board-clearing, fast break-leading and accurate-shooting post player Brianna Turner, who decided to redshirt her senior year after undergoing ACL knee surgery in April from an injury suffered during last season’s NCAA run.
One of those expected to pick up the slack for Allen, 5-foot-7 senior Mychal Johnson, will join the 6-foot-3 Turner on the bench as a mentor after she has surgery for an ACL injury she suffered Oct. 23.
“It’s been difficult for us to watch the injured list grow,” McGraw said.
Senior forward Kathryn Westbeld (8.4 points, 5.3 rebounds per game), Turner’s running mate on the front line and whom McGraw calls “the glue” of the team, has finally begun to practice after her recovery from ankle surgery last April. Earlier this week, the NCAA informed Notre Dame that 6-foot-4 junior transfer Jessica Shepard would be eligible this season after averaging 18.6 points and 9.2 rebounds in her two seasons at Nebraska.
Another transfer, Lili Thompson, who sat out last season to complete her undergraduate degree at Stanford, will inherit Allen’s role. Shepard, who also can pass, will play some guard when McGraw decides to go big with her four-guard offense. Returning junior guards Arike Ogunbowale (a team-leading 15.9 points per game last season) and Marina Mabrey (14.6 ppg, 92 assists) both should reach the school’s 1,000-point plateau early in the season. Much-improved sophomore guard Jackie Young also returns.
Notre Dame is also excited about Mikayla Vaughn, a 6-foot-3 freshman who scored 30 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked five shots during an exhibition game this week.
“I really don’t care what people think or say,” Mabrey said. “I know we’re going to be good.”
Some other things to know about Notre Dame, picked by ACC media voters to win a fifth straight league crown:
Notre Dame potentially could play 11 games against teams listed in the preseason Top 25 and eight of those would be on the road. Opponents could include South Florida and defending national champion South Carolina. The Irish have their annual showdown with No. 1 Connecticut and other games include DePaul, Louisville, Duke and Florida State along with Tennessee.
In its four seasons playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Notre Dame has swept the regular-season and tournament titles while going 62-2. The two losses both came on the road - a 78-63 setback at Miami in 2015 and a 70-62 loss at North Carolina State last season. No women’s program in the ACC has swept both basketball titles five years in a row, plus Notre Dame would be seeking its seventh league championship in a row because it won its last two as a member of the Big East.
Under McGraw, Notre Dame has made 22 straight NCAA tournament appearances, the fourth longest streak currently in NCAA women’s basketball. It will be seeking its eighth straight 30-win season. Only UConn has a longer active streak at 12.
ROAD TO SPRINGFIELD
McGraw, who is 853-268 in 35 years as a head coach at Lehigh and Notre Dame, is one of six coaches, men or women, in NCAA Division I history with 800 victories, seven trips to the Final Four and five appearances in NCAA championship games.
Notre Dame made a school-record 217 3-pointers last season, shooting .395 beyond the arc. Mabrey had 75 in 37 games (2.0 average, 11th in ACC) and her .383 accuracy was fifth. Her .402 career 3-point accuracy is seventh in ACC history and sixth-best ever at Notre Dame.