Notre Dame basketball: Irish seniors keep legacy in mind

Curt Rallo
South Bend Tribune

Kayla McBride sensed it when she walked onto the Purcell Pavilion court before the official practices started for the Notre Dame women's basketball team.

She walked onto the two-tone maple surface, and paused to look at the interlocking ND at center court.

"That's when it really hits you, when you're a senior," McBride said. "You realize what it means.

"I've been here the last three years and I've had so much success, but it's not good enough if I don't continue that my senior year. I want to leave a legacy, the seniors want to leave a legacy. We're trying to do this for coach (Muffet McGraw). She does so much for us, and she brought us here for a reason. We want to do whatever it takes to get back to the Final Four, to get that national championship."

No. 7 Notre Dame opens its season on Saturday at 1 p.m. when it hosts UNC Wilmington. It's a season without All-American point guard Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame's all-time leading scorer. It's a season without the fabled Big East rival Connecticut on the schedule.

But it's a season in which the expectations are just as high, as the Irish seek an unprecedented fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Notre Dame, which finished 35-2 last season, is in the Atlantic Coast Conference now, and McGraw wants her 2013-2014 club to send a message immediately.

"We've been talking about that all season," McGraw said of carving out an identity early. "We really have to come out and set a tone. It's so important for us, from the tip, defensively to set a tone. We have got to be physical, we have got to be mentally tough. We have to have that killer mentality. That's what I'm looking for.

"I've seen glimpses from certain people, but I haven't seen it from everyone, and not for extended periods of time. It's got to come from everybody, certainly Kayla and Jewell. We expect those two to be leading in that, and I think they are. It's really the rest of the team that needs to find that next gear."

Last season, a pressing defense helped the Irish roll up a winning margin of 21.9 points a game (third in the nation). The Irish forced an average of 19.8 turnovers, and their turnover margin was a plus 4.95 (19th in the nation).

Notre Dame's defensive intensity in the exhibition game, a 118-49 rout of California (Pa.), disappointed McGraw. She said she's seen the intensity cranked up in practice.

"I felt like Wednesday was one of the better days we've had in practice, energy-wise, intensity-wise. I thought we played harder. That was good. I've been pleased. Heading into our first game, you would expect it to get better, and it has."

McBride will be a critical player for the Irish. She averaged 15.9 points a game and 4.6 rebounds a game last season.

"Coach has been pushing us, trying to raise the intensity, demanding it from us, especially from the seniors, to have that chip about it," McBride said.

For McBride, raising the volume, getting in a teammate's face, isn't part of her demeanor.

"It's a process for me," said McBride, who recovered from an ankle injury and will start at the wing. "It's a little bit out of my character, but I have a really strong competitive nature that will take over. I want this more than anything, especially my senior year. I've been that leader before. I had to be that leader in high school. I can be the enforcer. I'm learning every day. It's a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it's good for me as a person and a basketball player."

In addition to McBride, Notre Dame is expected to start sophomore Jewell Loyd at the wing, and freshman Lindsay Allen at point guard. Freshman Taya Reimer and senior Ariel Braker will handle the inside game.

"I think we've got a lot of pieces that we're still looking at different combinations," McGraw said of a lineup that will be without 6-foot-3 post Natalie Achonwa, who is out for four-to-six weeks with a knee injury.

"I think with the freshmen, the consistency ... that's always a question with freshmen. That's where we're going to need the bench to be ready. I think Michaela Mabrey, Madison Cable and Markisha (Wright) are ready. Hannah Huffman is showing some signs of fitting into the lineup in some really important ways. I think we've got the pieces. They just have to be ready whenever their number is called."

UNC Wilmington was 5-26 last season. The Seahawks gave Wake Forest a tough game last season before losing 60-59, and gave a Sweet Sixteen Delaware team a fight before falling, 51-43.

WHO: No. 6 Notre Dame (0-0) vs. UNC Wilmington (0-0)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), South Bend

WHEN: Saturday, 1 p.m. EST

TV: None

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com

TICKETS: Available