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Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw reacts during last week’s home loss to Boston College. It didn’t get any better for McGraw or the Irish on Sunday against North Carolina State.

They still sport those gaudy neon-green T-shirts and wait as the moment and the house music builds with odd anticipation to cheer the initial sight of the Hall of Fame head coach, who emerges from the tunnel four minutes before tip to an unwavering ovation.

But they seem not to notice how the coach breaks for the exit before the last note of the alma mater.

They used to stay until the end to pick up coupons for free hamburgers after another laugher. Now some head for home before the fourth quarter of another loss.

These are odd times around Purcell Pavilion for the Notre Dame women’s basketball program, long a perennial power now stunningly relegated to pedestrian status. Once at the forefront of everything, Notre Dame’s just another program in line. Way back in it.

A lot of teams have been tossed into huge holes in Purcell Pavilion in recent winters. A lot of teams have had their collective spirit sapped in that setting. A lot of teams haven’t been able to look the part of a capable Atlantic Coast Conference outfit.

Seldom has Notre Dame been that team, one that last spring was 1.9 seconds from forcing overtime before possibly repeating as national champions. At 6-11 overall and 1-4 in the ACC, Notre Dame’s now that team.

There likely won’t be a 25th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament at season’s end. No 17th visit to the Sweet 16 or 10th trip to the Elite Eight. Where’s the Final Four this season? Who cares?

If Notre Dame can’t qualify for the NCAA tournament, it would be the third team in Division I history to dive from national runner-up one year to no tournament trip the next.

It’s gone from really good to really bad in a blink.

Explanations for the whys and hows this happened splay every direction. The Irish can’t make enough shots. They can’t get enough stops. They don’t have that solid senior leadership. They have too many inexperienced players. They work for two days guarding the ball screen in practice, then don’t guard the ball screen in games. There have been injuries. There have been transfers. All accurate.

It’s all left Notre Dame with not enough pieces and what pieces there are seemingly don’t fit. The Irish have lost three in a row, four of five and seven of nine. They’ve lost five straight at home, a place where it seldom ever lost. Notre Dame lost a combined seven games the previous two seasons.

Now the person in charge of it all, the one who’s won those four national coach of the year honors and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, directed responsibility for everything in an entirely different but overdue direction after Sunday’s 34-point beatdown by No. 9 North Carolina State.

When it comes to the Mount Rushmore of coaches in the women’s game, Muffet McGraw’s on it. Deservedly so. But when it comes to the losses and this season, she also has to own it.

On Sunday, she owned it.

Asked how difficult the last few days were — after believing she knew what buttons to push after a 10-point loss to Boston College three nights earlier, nothing worked against North Carolina State — McGraw could have danced past the query the way she did that Irish jig in front of TV cameras following last season’s national semifinal win over Connecticut. Dismissed entirely even.

She paused for a few seconds. Sighed. Then another pause. Another sigh. Then the emotions flowed easier than the words. The tears welled. The voice cracked. She was going to go there.

“I just … I gotta do better,” she said. “I feel like I can fix it, but I didn’t. I’m going to find an answer. I’m gonna fix it.”

Another sigh. Even an apology. It was weird. So out of character for the coach. Spill tears of joy after winning or losing a national championship? Absolutely. Tears in mid-January? What does that mean for the rest of the month? For February? For March?

What makes this so hard for McGraw is there is no reference point, nothing in her previous 33 seasons have prepared her to handle season No. 34. This is a hard business, even for someone who has long made it look easy. Nothing now is easy. That’s hard for her.

“That’s one of the things I’m trying to work through,” McGraw said. “This is the first time that this happened, so I’m searching for answers. I’m getting a lot of advice. I really believe that we’re good enough.”

Only they’re not.

It was uncomfortable to watch McGraw struggle for the right words and struggle with her emotion in Sunday’s post-game. The head coach is supposed to be the strong one, the stoic one, the I-can-get-this-all-turned-around one. The one that won’t crack. Over anything.

In some ways, it was refreshing. Like, McGraw’s a real human with real feelings. Not some robot racking up one-sided wins and conference championships and Final Four frequent-flyer mileage. She cares.

Turns out this program this year looks a lot like any other program. It has issues. It has short-comings. It has more losses than wins.

Sometimes a coach just can’t tap into the potential of their team the way they planned. That rarely happened at Notre Dame. It has this season.

McGraw’s emotions underscored a darker and deeper truth for this season — it’s a challenge to find a program that’s fallen so far so fast. It’s not a dip. This is an abyss free-fall.

Long the bully on the ACC women’s basketball block, Notre Dame’s in a tough spot. All those teams that it picked on home and away while running through the league the previous six seasons have lined up for payback. It’s already arrived against Clemson and Syracuse, Boston College and North Carolina State. More schools await their turn. And they’re going to take it.

“It can turn at any moment,” McGraw said. “It’s important for me to remain hopeful.”

Hope floated out into the evening ether Sunday. A top-five recruiting class comes aboard in June. This year’s freshmen will be sophomores. Right now, all of that feels a long way away.

tnoie@sbtinfo.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

(18) comments

Mountain Man

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger"! There will be a big rebound next year, barring injuries and transfers. Two or three top recruits the following year and another late run in the NCAA Torunament should follow. Peoples is now hurt. Just one more tribulation for a season of many: Four starters graduate, the other chooses to go, two transfers, one long term injury and one season ending one. That is a total of nine players, all experienced. Confidence of this years players, Coaches and fans has dwindled. The only way that changes is with a couple of wins in a row. That may be difficult to achieve, but you have to try.

jim masterson

Hey, Mountain Man; Stephen Hawking would disagree with your opening premise.

Pride goeth before the fall. Nothing better than to observe the ND, HOF coach in "free fall."

camerdf

Jim, there is a God. Belichick & the Pats were a quick out, Saban and 'bama never got in, and this Pompous Princess is on the outside crying. What a fantastic year!

jim masterson

Cam; May I steal that expression? Couldn't be happier with any of your choices. I grew up a Yankee fan, now I delight when their $200m + payroll is eliminated. Good times!

Mountain Man

"Pompous Princess"? Would you say similar about Geno, I bet not.

stjoeballer

Sure is good you super critics have something to crow about. Why don't you just crawl on over to Conn. and invent something to criticize there. These girls are overwhelmed with no experienced players to guide them. Mikki looks as though she is afraid to hurt her knee again, and the youngens were not ready to carry the weight of a program where everybody is gearing up to get even.

Mountain Man

So you enjoy watching MM in a "free fall"? Of course the team is also in a "free fall", as well as the other three assistant coaches. Did you enjoy the team making the final four seven of the last ten years, or was that success hard for you to watch? Personally I don't enjoy watching Coaches or Teams struggle, especially when circumstances beyond their control create "the perfect storm".

Ibeclare17

Maybe if Muffett didn’t throw a foot stomping hissy fit after one of the girls who transferred made a mistake in a nationally televised game last year the girl may have stayed. Oh, that’s right every single time this girl made a mistake she was yanked right out of the game. It was hard to watch. Now this team is harder to watch. Promises made during recruitment not promises kept

Mountain Man

"Stomping hissy fit." Would you say that about a male coach?

Ibeclare17

ND was up by 26 and the game was never in doubt in the above referenced game.

stillafan

I've watched three games. They seem to do everything well except shoot the ball. Almost every 3-point shot was a straight throw (!)---no arc on the ball, no spin. And how many layups do they miss? And how many times do they hit the edge (!) of the backboard with inside shots? Do they actually practice shooting?

65too

Wow! Bitter comments toward a coach and program that have given ND fans great seasons and moments. Of course this coach, her assistants, and players will be back. Right now, pain and frustration. It will be interesting to read what coach learned from this unusual season.

Mountain Man

Well said.

PAIRISH9

actually, This team doesn't rebound or play defense very well either. It's simply not a very good team! Nobody doubts that they are giving what they have to give, but it's not even close to being enough right now. Injuries and transfers have really hurt this program and time will tell if everyone comes back intact next year. Muffet is a great coach, no question, but even in the best of times, she often has a tantrum on the sidelines. The Mabrey's and Shepard's etc could handle these and carry on... other players don't handle this type of reaction. We all believe this program will be back in the top 10 as soon as next year, but the truth is right now they've not shown much improvement in any area and are not a very good team!

Mountain Man

"They do everything well except shoot the ball." They also struggle rebounding and playing defense. That is do to a lack of post players and no depth. They can't play much man to man because they run the risk of foul trouble and no one to replace if anyone fouls out. "Do they practice shooting." That comment is not worthy of a response.

stillafan

[scared] Yeah, but my comment "Do they actually practice shooting?" should have been followed by "It sure doesn't look like it." Who--at any level--heaves the ball at the basket in a straight line with no spin? What coach would say "Yeah, that's it. Forget about arc, forget about spin!" That's my point. In the three games I've watched on TV, virtually all 3-point shots have no arc or spin. I can't believe any of the players would say "Yeah, that's the way you should shoot it." And I can't believe any of the coaches would say that either. And yet they do it, shot after shot, game after game. Frankly, if I were the coach, I would take a player out of the game for doing that. And they often steal the ball more than their opponent....but then they can't make a layup. This is basic stuff, and I don't get why they don't do the basics properly.

As for shooting, take Gilbert for example: She shot .450 last year; .406 this year. So she's gotten worse?

Mountain Man

Several points regarding your comments: Shooting in practice can improve shooting in games, but it usually takes months or years for that to translate. (Most often that needs to be an off season skill players need to emphasize. Secondly, This years team has no pressure during scrimmages in practice. Who are they playing a group of walk on's or some volunteer boys. Question: Who would you put in the game when someone whiffs on a perimeter shot? (Answer is they have no bench, so you still can but the difference in skills and athleticism would be dramatic. Observation: This is a team of slashers not shooters. They are athletic, run the floor well, and drive the ball to the basket well. Brunell won the McDonalds All American three point shooting contest. With her it is not lack of technique, it is confidence and shooting within the flow of the game. (She admitted that she was rushing her shot.) Her percentage on made threes has improved dramatically over the last five games. She just is taking enough shots, do to the fact she often has to play out of position. Your stats on Gilbert are misleading as she was playing with a potential National Championship team and only played a few games before getting injured and missing the remainder of the year. She has a good mid-range shot. Walker is very erratic, one game she makes five threes the next she is 0 - 7.

jim masterson

Geno from UConn, is a terrific coach, and a gentleman.

No, I don't watch any of the girls games of ND.

McGraw last year acted as they she was "queen" of the hill.

Do all of her supporters recall her saying: "she would never hire a man as an assistant coach."

And then pontificating on a Constitutional Amendment that has been in limbo for 50 years.

Her(McGraw knowledge of the constitution is as limited as 0bama's), I believe she needed a period such as this to get off her high horse.

BTW, if I was the ND AD, and I had a coach who is exclaiming she doesn't know what to do, I would take her aside and tell her she better learn what to do. I love ND, love it's mission, I am starting to doubt the messengers from ND.

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