SOUTH BEND — It was an unmistakably less emotional Muffet McGraw — even with word that a key player may be sidelined indefinitely — but a no-less self-blaming one Wednesday afternoon before practice.
“I mean, the buck stops here, right?” McGraw said when asked if she had perhaps come down too hard on herself three days earlier.
The Notre Dame women’s basketball coach turned teary-eyed with long pauses between short sentences during a postgame press conference following Sunday’s 90-56 home loss to No. 9-ranked North Carolina State, asserting “I gotta do better,” and vowing “I’m gonna find an answer, I’m gonna fix it.”
The Irish, on pace for the worst season in the program’s 43-year existence, are 6-11 overall, 1-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, heading into Thursday’s visit to Duke (8-8, 2-3).
“This is my team,” McGraw said Wednesday, “and I feel like, looking at it now, maybe we should’ve done a little more fundamental work during the season. We had so much to work on. I’m looking at, did we do this too much and this not enough?”
Her answers seemed to be yes and yes.
“I have control of a lot of things,” McGraw said. “I can’t put the ball in the basket for them, but I can get them that shot. Sometimes, we’re not even executing, so I think that is definitely my fault.”
Executing could become even more challenging against the Blue Devils.
McGraw said freshman Anaya Peoples is “doubtful” to play after the freshman guard and team rebounding leader injured her shoulder in the second quarter of Sunday’s loss.
“We’re gonna look at our options and see if surgery is required,” McGraw said, “and is it gonna be now or after the season?”
The coach said no timeline was set for making that decision.
“We haven’t sat down and figured it out yet with her to see what she wants to do,” McGraw said. “I think they’re going to try to rehab it and see.”
Peoples, who appeared in typically good spirits, and fellow freshman Sam Brunelle were the first two arriving players well before practice Wednesday. Peoples was dressed as if she might participate and was taking shots without any visible pain.
“She might (play Thursday),” McGraw said, “but I doubt it.”
On Sunday, the coach described Peoples — averaging 12.6 points to go with her team-pacing 8.1 rebounds — as “just relentless. She never quits, she goes after every ball. She never stops trying and I think she’s just kind of a workhorse, kind of a blue-collar player, and you have to have someone like that in the game.”
Now that may not be an option.
“We have a lot of things to compensate for without Anaya,” McGraw said Wednesday. “As I said (Sunday), she’s the one person we can’t afford to lose because she does so many things, rebounding especially and defending. (Minutes-wise), we’ll have to rely on (Danielle) Cosgrove and (Katie) Cole more, see what we can get out of them.”
While McGraw continued to put the brunt of the blame on herself, she added that her message to her players is to “control the things you can control.”
“Being willing to take a charge, diving on the floor for a loose ball, how quickly you get back on defense, positioning, those are things you control,” McGraw said. “Those are things I think we can do better.”
McGraw excitedly lauded the WNBA’s tentatively reached eight-year labor deal announced earlier this week.
It’s an agreement that reportedly includes a 53% increase in overall cash compensation and many other enhanced benefits for players.
Cathy Engelbert — who played for McGraw in the mid 1980s at Lehigh — became WNBA commissioner last July. She’s been central to negotiations.
“I loved seeing that happen,” McGraw said of what the players are expected to receive. “I talked to Cathy about that before it happened and she said they were definitely going to be able to do some different things.”
Nine former Notre Dame players were on WNBA teams last season, second-most of any school in the country.
That included five rookies in Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, Brianna Turner, Marina Mabrey and Jackie Young, and four veterans in Skylar Diggins-Smith, Natalie Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd.
“I’m thrilled for our marquee players like Skylar and Natalie that they’re going to benefit from this,” McGraw said of a deal that roughly doubles the salaries of some of the league’s stars, besides including hikes for all players. “Top players are going to see a big change before our rookies will, but the younger players can look at the future and say ‘I’m gonna be there someday.’”
The deal, overwhelmingly approved by players, must still be ratified by the owners.
Some of the benefits include full salaries while on maternity leave, a more liberal free agency system and improved traveling conditions.
“The way they travel is so important,” McGraw said. “We treat them better in college than we do in the pros, which is crazy.”
Said McGraw of her long-ago Lehigh captain, “I think Cathy is just doing great things. I think she understands as a former CEO how things have to go, and she wants to see it expand for all women’s sports, which is phenomenal. Look at what soccer is doing and hockey, and how we can all help each other.”