SOUTH BEND – Muffet McGraw can't wait to get started on what some believe could be her most challenging season at Notre Dame.
Three days after her defending NCAA champions suffered an 82-81 setback to Baylor in the NCAA championship game in April, McGraw saw all five starters, led by junior Jackie Young, taken among the first 19 picks of the WNBA draft. Then two underclassmen transferred (sophomore forward Danielle Patterson to Indiana and freshman point guard Jordan Nixon to Texas A&M).
So there are plenty of new faces this season.
“Nobody was coming back as the returning starter,” McGraw said recently. “Everyone was looking at it as, 'Hey, I've got a chance to play.'”
In August, the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies hired assistant Niele Ivey, the point guard on Notre Dame's first NCAA title team in 2001. She will be replaced by former player Michaela Mabrey, who will join McGraw as the coach begins her 33rd season at Notre Dame, where she is 835-234 with nine Final Four appearances and two NCAA titles.
“They are so eager to learn, so willing to listen but we still need to know who's going to be the go-to player, the one to step up when we need a basket,” said McGraw, who lost not only Young and double-double producer Jessica Shepard but also the program's all-time leading scorer in Arike Ogunbowale, its all-time leading rebounder and shot-blocker in Brianna Turner and its all-time leading 3-point shooter in Marina Mabrey, Michaela's sister.
The Irish return a top frontline reserve in 6-foot-3 Mikayla Vaughn, developing 6-foot-4 sophomore forward Danielle Cosgrove, scrappy sophomore guard Abby Prohaska and get injured guards back in sophomore Katlyn Gilbert and senior Kaitlin Cole. They also have two top recruits in forward Sam Brunelle and guard Anaya Peoples along with graduate transfers Marta Sniezek (Stanford) and Destinee Walker (North Carolina).
The Irish, who are seeking a sixth Atlantic Coast Conference championship, open at Fordham on Nov. 5 and also have early battles with Tennessee (Nov. 11) and Minnesota (Dec. 4). They visit rival Connecticut on Dec. 8 in a series that was recently extended four years.
“I think it's the greatest rivalry in college sports,” said McGraw, whose team was knocked from No. 1 by the Huskies, 89-71, in December in South Bend but avenged the loss in the Final Four semifinals, 81-76. “It's the game everyone looks forward to around the country. We've had good success in the NCAA Tournament recently and the rivalry has gotten even more intense, if that's possible.”
Into that intensity returns Michaela Mabrey, who went to three Final Fours as a player for McGraw.
“Niele is so hard to replace in so many ways, and I think it is great the NBA has really taken the lead in hiring women,” McGraw said. “Hiring Michaela was an easy decision for me. She was a coach on the floor as a player. She has energy. She has a high I.Q. for the game.”