SOUTH BEND — If anything’s been even more maddening for Notre Dame women’s basketball this season than losing at a rate astoundingly high relative to past seasons, it might be the rate at which the Irish have been losing home games.
That rate’s even worse than the overall rate, something almost unheard of here.
Notre Dame (6-9, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) will try to avoid a fourth straight home loss — which would tie the longest such skid in the program’s 43-year history, set 17 years ago — when it welcomes Boston College (8-6, 1-2) to Purcell Pavilion on Thursday night.
“They’re harder than the road losses because of our fans,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Wednesday of the home defeats.
“I love our fans, what they do for us,” McGraw said as she stood along a Purcell sideline shortly before practice. “They’re the ones that are just really trying to inspire us to get a little bit better. Their loyalty has been tremendous, so I feel bad for them. I want to win for them. I want them to leave with a good feeling when we head into the locker room.”
Not counting an exhibition win last month, Thursday marks exactly 50 days since those fans last left with that feeling.
It’s not for a lack of trying.
If anything, “I think probably we are trying a little bit harder (at home),” McGraw said, “but it’s not like we’re not trying hard on the road, either.”
Notre Dame is 2-5 at home this season, 4-4 elsewhere.
Just once in McGraw’s 32 full seasons have the Irish finished with a notably better win percentage elsewhere than at home, that coming 26 years ago. There are two other seasons in which the elsewhere percentage was a bit better than the home figure, but that was driven primarily by more elsewhere opportunities than home chances (going 22-1 elsewhere in 2012-13 to 13-1 at home, and 13-3 elsewhere in 1989-90 to 10-3 at home).
This season’s 2-5 home mark — with most of the ACC ledger still to go — has left the Irish with as many home losses already as in the last eight years combined.
Notre Dame went 118-5 in those eight, including 98-3 over the last six with all three losses to Connecticut.
ND’s most recent home outing was its 71-55 loss to Clemson 11 days ago.
That was the program’s first home loss to an unranked opponent in nearly eight years, its most lopsided home loss to any opponent not named UConn in nearly 12 years and its most lopsided loss to an unranked opponent in nearly 28 years.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” McGraw said of whether her players are putting more pressure on themselves at home than on the road.
Given the graduation of four starters off last season’s national runner-up team, the early draft entry of Jackie Young, a pair of players transferring and Abby Prohaska being sidelined due to illness, the Irish actually entered this season with not a single player who’d ever started a game for them at Purcell.
“I’d like to think not,” freshman Sam Brunelle said Wednesday of whether she feels more pressure at home, which would be a feeling running counter to a home-court advantage.
“Wherever you play, whether it’s on the road or at home, you’re just playing the game of basketball, (but) some people might have different mentalities.”
There’s no doubt that the home-court advantage has been real for McGraw over the years.
The Hall of Famer is 407-66 at Purcell for an .860 win percentage, compared to 434-177 for .710 elsewhere.
McGraw’s never compiled a losing season at home, be it at ND or in her five years at Lehigh, with the low mark being 7-7 in 1991-92, which was also when she registered her only losing record overall at 14-17.
“It really does,” McGraw said of whether this season makes her more deeply appreciate the dominance of recent years. “They’re putting up our last Final Four floor (the ninth overall) over in the practice facility, and I was just thinking of the old days. It’s good that we can reflect back on that and see.”
The coach quickly added an unprompted caveat.
“We know we’re gonna get there again,” McGraw said. “We just have to go through a little bit of a down time in order to get back up there.”
In the interim, fans haven’t been showing up at quite the same rate as in recent years — average listed home attendance is 7,578, down 10.1% from last winter’s 8,434 — yet still at a rate that would place the Irish eighth in the nation based on last year’s figures.
What they’ve witnessed has been unusual.
Of this season’s five home losses, three have come against teams not even ranked in the Associated Press poll.
That’s as many such defeats as in the last 11 years combined.
It’s also just one less than the most such defeats McGraw’s sustained in any one season at Notre Dame, the instances of four such losses happening in 1991-92 and 1993-94.
One irony in the Irish struggling at Purcell this season is that it’s the first season the program has opted to sing the school’s alma mater, “Notre Dame, Our Mother,” after each home game, win or lose.
“It definitely is,” Brunelle said of whether it’s more difficult to serenade after a loss, “(but) the ‘Notre Dame’ across our chest means so much. It’s tradition and it’s all these awesome fans who continue to come out and support us throughout the season. We just want to win and when that doesn’t happen, it’s really hard to stay in there and do it. However, we are so proud of being here at Notre Dame, so singing that song is still special.”
McGraw described Anaya Peoples as “questionable” to play Thursday.
The standout freshman guard hurt her right shoulder during Sunday’s 74-63 overtime loss at Syracuse.
“It popped out and went back in,” McGraw said.
Peoples was warming up Wednesday to practice on a “limited” basis.
“She’s going to try today with a brace and see how it goes,” McGraw said.
Peoples leads all ACC freshmen at 13.5 points per game and leads ND at 8.5 rebounds.
If she can’t play Thursday, she’ll be the latest of several players to be sidelined this winter.
Besides being without Prohaska all season, the Irish were without junior center Mikki Vaughn for 11 games until her recent return from a knee injury, have seen point guard Marta Sniezek miss one contest due to a foot ailment and have seen Destinee Walker not start once due to back spasms.
In the last four games, they’ve used four different starting combinations, bringing their total for the season to six.
Extra good in extra time
Sunday’s loss at Syracuse marked ND’s first overtime defeat since a double-OT decision in November 2010 against visiting UCLA.
Since falling to the Bruins, the Irish had won eight straight overtime games, the most recent being their Final Four victory over UConn two nights before winning the 2018 national title.
“I was not aware of that,” McGraw said of owning a prolonged winning streak in extra-session games.