SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame center Mikki Vaughn never met fellow Philadelphia native Kobe Bryant, but has long felt a connection to him.
Irish Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, maybe a bit more surprisingly, never met him, either, but appreciates that Bryant developed a connection to women’s basketball.
“I think it’s great when athletes who have the respect he does have daughters,” McGraw said Wednesday of Bryant, who had four. “They finally see it through our eyes and what we go through and how different it is at the AAU level and the high school level.
“So to have a proponent and an advocate for women like him,” McGraw said, “and to have him come out to games, and bring his daughter, I think that just really gives credibility in a lot of ways. A lot of people see him at the game and think, ‘Oh, it must be a good thing to go to a women’s game.’”
The 41-year-old Bryant, one of the most beloved sports figures in the world, and 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash Sunday in Los Angeles County.
The Irish were still on the court in the midst of their loss at Virginia when word of the former Laker star’s death began to circulate around the globe.
“One of our managers told us (after the game), and I thought it was a joke,” Vaughn said Wednesday at practice. “I thought someone was kidding. As I heard it a couple more times, I was like, it doesn’t seem real. … We felt like the air got sucked out of the room.”
One of Vaughn’s brothers attended the same Philadelphia area high school, Lower Merion, from which Bryant graduated.
“When I was a kid and my brother went to school there,” Vaughn recalled, “it was kind of this weird connection to Kobe, just because we’d always be at the school that he played at, and it was amazing, obviously.”
McGraw, who played college basketball at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia, reflected with a smile Wednesday on how Bryant congratulated Arike Ogunbowale via Twitter after Ogunbowale hit her initial Final Four game-winning shot in 2018, then surprised Ogunbowale on a national TV show after her second such shot in the title game.
The coach said she knows her players past and present have been hurting.
“A lot of them, of course, admired him so much and respected him so much,” McGraw said. “I think (Irish sophomore guard) Katlyn Gilbert had met him and talked to him a little bit once. The interaction he had with Arike … so I think it was shocking, and I think it puts life in perspective sometimes when things like that happen, and you have to remember that tomorrow is promised to no one, that we have to appreciate every day as a gift.”
Moral wins enough?
On the eve of No. 5 Louisville (20-1 overall, 9-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) coming to Purcell Pavilion as an overwhelming favorite against Notre Dame, McGraw declared that “for me anyway, it’s no longer about wins and losses so much as competing.”
“We just want to come out and compete for 40 minutes and feel good about where we are after the game, whether the score reflects it or not,” McGraw said of her Irish (7-13, 2-6), who have lost nine of their last 11.
The uber-competitive coach with 930 career victories, a .764 winning percentage, nine Final Four appearances and two national titles acknowledged it’s not easy for her to judge outcomes by other than the scoreboard, but she’s going to try with this club.
“I’m not sure I’m totally there,” McGraw said, “(but) I keep saying I’m there. I remember early in the season we lost a close game, I think to Michigan State, and someone asked if that was a moral victory, and I immediately rejected the idea, and when thinking back, yeah, for this team, it is, and so I’ve really had to lower the expectations and know that it’s not so much about (wins); it’s about getting better.”
The coach said her current club has some offensive limitations that it’s not going to overcome at times — Notre Dame ranks 342nd of 349 Division I teams in 3-point percentage at 23.9 and 284th in turnovers at 18.3 — but “defensively is where we’ve got to really do a lot better.”
“I don’t have any problem with saying we lost because we missed some shots,” McGraw said. “It’s the way we’ve lost two of the last three (90-56 to No. 7 North Carolina State and 90-60 at unranked Virginia). It’s really not Notre Dame basketball, and I’m so disappointed in that.”