McGraw milestone brings focus to Notre Dame players

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

By Curt Rallo

South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw wasn’t exactly in the spotlight after coaching her 1,000th game, a 100-75 victory over 14th-ranked North Carolina on Thursday.

She was in the dark, along with the media, after a campus-wide power outage plunged Notre Dame into darkness.

McGraw held her press conference under the dimness of an auxiliary light in the hallway outside of the basketball offices at Purcell Pavilion, since the basketball auditorium was in complete darkness.

McGraw wanted to talk about her players, rather than a personal milestone, and quickly brushed aside questions about her achievement. The Hall of Fame coach is 742-258 in 32 seasons overall, and 654-217 in 27 seasons at Notre Dame.

“I surround myself with great people, great coaches and great players,” McGraw said. “They are all self-starters. They’re self-motivated. They’re extremely hard workers. Everybody does everything they can do to help us win. It’s a team effort. They make my job so much easier.

“And, of course, my husband, Matt, is one of the biggest reasons I’ve been able to stay in this business. I’ve leaned on him for years. I’ve been gone so many days from home, with recruiting, what you do in the season. I couldn’t do it without him.”

Next up for the second-ranked Irish (28-0 overall, 15-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) is a trip to Raleigh, N.C., to play at No. 13 North Carolina State (24-5, 11-4) on Sunday in the regular-season finale.

Notre Dame has already won the ACC regular-season title, and earned the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. The Irish open play in the league tourney on Friday, March 7, at 2 p.m., in Greensboro, N.C.

Irish senior leader Kayla McBride said that McGraw’s intensity stands out, and that she incorporates her intensity along with strategy to create an extremely competitive, intelligent team on the court.

“Coach is more energetic than us most days at practice,” McBride said. “I think coach is the most competitive out of all of us. I think that she comes in with that mentality. She doesn’t want anybody to even the score on us. That mentality goes down to the assistant coaches and the players, and we take that to the younger players. It all starts with coach McGraw.”

Natalie Achonwa, another of the Irish senior leaders, said that the players were proud to be part of McGraw’s 1,000th game, and that the achievements are always about the team.

“We do it for each other, for our coaching staff, and I think, that’s the unique part about Notre Dame, the bond that you build within the program and with each other,” Achonwa said. “That’s the biggest part for us, to do it for each other.”

Rough finish

Notre Dame is in the midst of a stretch in which it is finishing the regular season by playing No. 7 Duke, No. 14 North Carolina, and No. 13 North Carolina State. After that, it’s the ACC Tournament, and then the NCAA Tournament.

“I think it’s good for us,” McBride said of the rugged finish. “We know that we have to be ready, night-in and night-out. We know we can’t take any games off, any possessions off, any halves off. We have to come in with that mentality and keep that toughness. I’m kind of glad it’s like this. Going into the tournament, we know we have to be focused on whoever is in our way.”

Great starts

In Notre Dame’s past two games, the Irish have gotten off to torrid starts. The Irish jumped to a 20-2 lead in Sunday’s victory against Duke, and Notre Dame took a 14-2 lead against North Carolina on Thursday.

“I think these last two games, we’ve come out and just tried to have fun,” McBride said. “We weren’t pressing as much as the games prior to that. We were just coming out and getting stops on defense, and that led to transition baskets. We were hitting shots early. It was a lot of fun.”

Pressing matters

Duke and North Carolina slapped a press on the Notre Dame reserves this past week when the Irish pulled out their starters, narrowing down sizable Irish leads. It’s a frequent occurrence this season.

“We plan on spending more time working on the press with our bench,” McGraw said.

The maturity edge

Notre Dame’s senior leaders — McBride, Achonwa and Ariel Braker — have participated in 129 Irish victories as a class. They will tie the program record of 130 wins with one more victory. That mark was set by last season’s senior class of Skylar Diggins and Kaila Turner.

“Being in the ACC, one of the most competitive conferences in the nation, as well as playing with a team like this, that loves to have fun and loves to play basketball, if you put those two things together, and you can do anything on the basketball court,” Achonwa said. “It’s just fun for us. We enjoy every possession. We enjoy the ups and downs of the game. We stick together. That’s the fun part of the game.

“A lot of maturity goes into it. As a freshman, you have a lot of highs and lows. It’s literally a roller-coaster. You’re just trying to find your place on the team. I think, with the three seniors on our team, we’ve been through it all. We’ve learned from our mistakes, and we’ve learned from our successes.

“It’s made us more mature in approaching games. We go into every game with the same approach. We go in with the same competitive attitude every game.”

CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Twitter: rallo NDInsider

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw recently coached her 1,000th career game. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)