Notre Dame vs. Connecticut in Final Four

Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard (32) looks to pass as Connecticut’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa, left, and Christyn Williams (13) defend during Friday’s game, inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. Shepard said it’s not hard to put thoughts about the WNBA Draft on hold.

TAMPA, Fla. — Nobody could be blamed for putting every bit of one’s focus on playing for a national championship.

Yet, nobody could be blamed for putting one’s focus on one’s future when a potentially critical moment to that future is but three days away.

For at least four Notre Dame players — and maybe five — that will be the combination platter heaped upon their plates when they face Baylor in Sunday’s women’s basketball national championship.

Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, Brianna Turner and Marina Mabrey are all hopeful of being taken in Wednesday’s WNBA Draft.

As of Saturday, junior Jackie Young had not made a decision yet, according to coach Muffet McGraw, on whether she’ll go pro a year early. The WNBA stipulates that she must declare within 24 hours after Sunday’s game.

“I don’t think it’s compartmentalizing at all,” Shepard said Saturday of whether that’s the approach that has to be taken with two potentially life-defining moments at hand.

“I think right now we’re all focused on winning a national championship,” Shepard said, “and then we’ll worry about what’s next after that.”

Shepard added more perspective.

“You don’t really have any control about what’s going to happen next week,” she said. “For us, right now we’re guaranteed to play one more game in a Notre Dame jersey. That’s our focus.”

Mabrey says she’s simply trying to handle upcoming events sequentially.

“I feel like it’s about being really happy we got to this point,” Mabrey said of Sunday’s championship, “and then being able to turn around and say, ‘I’m really happy this happened, really happy I got to be in that game, but now it’s time to move on, time to try to make a team.’

“But, yeah, there really won’t be a lot of time in between.”

The situation is in stark contrast to the time potential NBA and NFL players have to make choices about their futures and to prepare.

“(Women’s players) don’t have time to search for agents and they don’t have time to make decisions,” McGraw said, alluding particularly to Young on the latter point.

“The other four, every game they go into, they’re thinking about their future, because if they play poorly, they’re wondering if their stock is going to drop,” McGraw said. “If they play well, is their stock going to rise?

“There’s a lot of pressure on them, things they shouldn’t have to be thinking about at this moment, at this juncture, when it’s so important for us to come out and play well without that hanging on their head.”

Still, “they’ve handled it really well,” McGraw continued of her players. “I think they’ve all played well. They’ve certainly done great things to make the WNBA coaches take a look at them. But, yeah, I mean, it’s your future. Your future’s hanging in the balance right now. That’s a lot for a 21, 22-year-old kid.”

Best of friends

The ever-competitive Ogunbowale tends to play basketball like the opponent is a sworn enemy, but at least one Bear on Sunday will know better.

“We’re super close,” Ogunbowale said Saturday of Baylor star center Kalani Brown.

“We talked last night after I won (over Connecticut), because I couldn’t talk after her (win over Oregon),” Ogunbowale said. “We’re best friends. We talk every day. We’re in a lot of group chats together. We really talk every single day.”

The two first began to get close when they played together on the U16 USA National Team, then later met up at AAU tourneys and various tryouts, according to Brown.

“We just stayed connected, all of us,” Brown said of a group of six players from the U16 squad.

“Even Sabrina (Ionescu of Oregon), I gave her a hug last night. … But me and Arike have definitely stayed in touch the most.”

“I’ve never played her in college,” Ogunbowale said of Brown. “It’s just gonna be really fun for us to be able to player each other, especially in our last game of college. She’s had a great career. I’m just really excited she’s in the championship and finally made it to the Final Four.”

Hiring practices

McGraw drew viral support, and also some heat, earlier in the week when she stood by a previously published report that said she would never hire another man as an assistant coach.

She said that’s based on the percentage of men’s coaches already in the women’s game while there are nearly no women in the men’s game.

The Hall of Famer went on to speak for several minutes about gender inequality across many segments of society while answering questions.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was asked Saturday about McGraw’s take.

“I understand her points,” Mulkey said, “without a doubt. But I’m of the belief I want the best person for the job. I have a son, and would be honored if my son wanted to coach next to me.

“She has a son,” Mulkey added of McGraw. “I would think she would be honored if he wanted to coach women’s basketball. So I tend to stay away from saying the word ‘never.’

“Bring attention to what needs to be fixed, but don’t give an absolute answer, because I don’t want to hire somebody just to be hiring them. I want to hire somebody that can help us be successful.

“As a female, and a mother of a son and a daughter, I’m very careful saying ‘never,’” Mulkey said. “But I do understand what she is saying. Statistics are glaring.”

McGraw was briefed later in the day on Mulkey’s take, and was asked if any of her own comments have been misconstrued.

“I’m not opposed to hiring men,” McGraw said. “I just think that women need those opportunities, and those opportunities right now are going to men.”

McGraw also pointed out that since the end of last season she has hired a male video coordinator and a male strength coach.

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