Notre Dame women's basketball: This Philly trip is for Muffet

South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame schedules its women’s basketball non-conference games for a variety of reasons.

Games can be scheduled with a quick one-day turnaround to simulate the NCAA Tournament format. Games can be scheduled in hostile environments to prepare for tough conference venues. Games can be scheduled to build the RPI, to get a taste of different styles, or for a player’s homecoming.

Saturday’s game for the No. 5 Irish (3-0) against the University of Pennsylvania (0-1) at the fabled Palestra is for coach Muffet McGraw. Tip-off is scheduled for 3 p.m. EST on Saturday.

McGraw grew up in the Philadelphia area and played collegiately for St. Joseph’s. She began her coaching career at Archbishop Carroll High School, and is now in Philadelphia’s Big Five Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Palestra is where the flames of McGraw’s early passion for basketball reached great heights.

“At the Palestra, back in the 70’s, you had to sneak in for the St. Joe-Villanova men’s game,” McGraw reminisced. “That’s the one that you had to storm the gates for. Nobody had tickets for that game. And we did storm the gates, we absolutely did. I admit it.

“The Big 5 (St. Joseph’s, Villanova, LaSalle, Penn, Temple) was huge back then. It was a big part of the whole college experience, because St. Joe’s didn’t have football. We were all about basketball.”

Pandemonium reigned when Big Five rivals clashed at The Palestra, an iconic arena that opened in 1927, and has been referred to as one of college basketball’s Cathedrals.

“There were so many traditions. You would throw out a roll of streamers at the first basket, and they’d have to stop the game and clear the court. They had roll-outs, with various sarcastic Philadelphia-type things on it. All five teams played there. St. Joe would play Villanova there, Temple would play LaSalle there. It was really fun. And they’d bring in a lot of really good teams to play there. It’s a historic building. It’s the birthplace of basketball for the Big Five.

“It’s the kind of place, when you walk in, you say, ‘What a great place to watch a game.’ The bleachers go right to the floor. The crowd was going to be right there. There’s no press table on the sideline. The crowd is right on the floor, so you can hear everything coming from the crowd.”

McGraw has taken plenty of Irish teams to Philadelphia to tangle with then-Big East rival Villanova, whose slow-down style of play was frustrating for the up-tempo Irish. Those games were played at the Pavilion, Villanova’s campus gym. Saturday’s game against Penn at The Palestra is the first time McGraw will be taking a team to the legendary court where she played many of her college games.

“That’s the great thing about basketball,” McGraw said. “It takes you so many places that you would never have been able to go. You get to see some things and experience some things that a lot of people never get to do. It’s been a great experience.”

McGraw is excited about more than just playing at The Palestra. Irish post Natalie Achonwa, who averaged 13.8 points and 9.8 rebounds last season, is expected to play her first minutes of the season after missing the first three games with a knee injury.

“She’s practiced every day this week, and we expect her to play on Saturday,’’ McGraw said. “We’re very excited about that.

“She gives us a great voice and experience. She’s just so smart. She knows exactly where to go. She makes it easier for everyone else, because now everyone can just play.’’Notre Dame’s focus on Saturday will be to show improvement in the half-court offense against a Penn team that returns all five starters from last season’s 18-13 club.

“I’m looking for an offensive explosion,’’ McGraw said. “This week, we spent more time working on the offense. Hopefully, this weekend we’ll see better results.

“It’s more execution. We’ve scored a lot of points. Scoring isn’t our problem. It’s how we’re scoring.’’

Notre Dame ran away from Valparaiso last Saturday in a 96-46 victory. The Irish racked up a 16-0 advantage in fastbreak points, but McGraw believes the Irish can’t rely on the fastbreak to product consistently.

“In the Valparaiso game, we got a lot of breakaway lay-ups, so we didn’t have to run the offense,” McGraw said. “If someone takes that away, then what are we going to do in the half-court offense? We want to keep running the transition game, but we’re not going to get that transition game against everybody.”

This weekend's Notre Dame women's basketball trip to Philadelphia takes coach Muffet McGraw home. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER