Putting ND women's perfection in perspective

South Bend Tribune

RALEIGH, N.C. — Perhaps it was appropriate that the Notre Dame women’s basketball team put the finishing touches on its first unbeaten regular season in historic Reynolds Coliseum, an iconic building on the North Carolina State campus that echoes great moments in college basketball since it opened in 1949.

Next up for the No. 2 Irish (29-0, 16-0) is the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. Notre Dame plays on Friday at 2 p.m. as the No. 1 seed against the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 8 seed Miami (16-13, 8-8) and No. 9 Florida State (19-10, 7-9).

It is the first time the Irish have gone through the regular season undefeated in the program’s 37-season history. They completed conference play unbeaten for the third time — the other two clean league slates coming last season in the Big East, and in 1989-90 in the Midwest Collegiate Conference.

In ACC women’s basketball history, Notre Dame is the eighth team to finish unbeaten in league play and the first to pull off the feat since North Carolina went 14-0 in 2008. Notre Dame is the fourth team to post a 16-0 league record in ACC play, the first since Duke was 16-0 in the 2002-03 season.

According to McGraw, unselfishness has been a key factor in Notre Dame’s accomplishment.

“I’m really excited about the way we’re playing,” McGraw said. “I think we’ve played pretty well all year long, with a really unselfish mindset. Nobody cares who is getting credit. We just want to win.

As the season has progressed, McGraw said that her club has developed great mental toughness.

“It’s a long season,” she said. “We didn’t have a bye. We didn’t have a weekend day off since early in December, because we chose to play Tennessee and Oregon State in place of a bye. This team has been able to really focus going on the road and being ready every game.

“I think the leadership has been phenomenal with our senior class and carried through with an unselfish attitude. I think all of those things play into it.”

Balancing act

Notre Dame has three players scoring in double-figures — Jewell Loyd (18.4), Kayla McBride (17.7) and Natalie Achonwa (14.7). Additionally, Michaela Mabrey averages 9.0 points, Taya Reimer 8.0 and Lindsay Allen 6.9.

“I love the balance,” McGraw said. “When you have a game when one of our leading scorers starts out shooting a little bit off of what she normally shoots, you know somebody else is going to pick up the slack.

“We’ve had great off-the-bench contributions from Michaela Mabrey — she’s had a phenomenal year. ... Taya Reimer coming off the bench ... I think we have the depth that we haven’t had before. That really helps with the balance. We’ve got a good inside game with Natalie Achonwa and Taya Reimer, and we have really good guards. Our point guard (Lindsay Allen) has been steady throughout. Everybody is really doing their job.”

Change of scenery

Notre Dame will be playing in the ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum, a truly neutral court. The past 10 seasons, the Irish have played in the Big East Tournament on Connecticut’s home court at the XL Center in Hartford.

Notre Dame won its first Big East Tournament title last season over Connecticut, 61-59, on a last-second basket by Achonwa following a steal and drive by Skylar Diggins.

The Irish cut down the nets on the Huskies’ home court as the home crowd headed for the exits.

“The neutral court, I think it’s something we have not experienced in a long time,” McGraw said. “That makes for a great tournament atmosphere. The (Greensboro) crowds, I understand, are really into the game. The people in Greensboro, I’ve already met so many of them, they do a phenomenal job there. It’s just a really warm and welcoming atmosphere, which will be a little different than we’ve faced in the past.”

Great matchup

Some of the best competition that All-America candidates McBride and Loyd face is in practice, against each other.

“I love the way they compete,” McGraw said. “We try to match them up at practice, and they really, really go at it. It’s fun to watch, for really the whole team. It’s a great battle, because they both have so much competitiveness, so much pride. Neither one of them wants to let the other one win. We play a lot of one-on-one, and do some defensive drills, where they’re pitted against each other, and they really enjoy doing it.

“If you ask them, they would say they’ve made each other better. I don’t think there’s any kind of rivalry between them. On the court, they cheer for each other, they’re happy for each other’s successes. They make each other better, and that’s made us a better team.”

Class act

Notre Dame’s seniors — Achonwa, Ariel Braker and McBride — tied the program record for most wins (130) by a class set last season by Skylar Diggins and Kaila Turner.

Achonwa, Braker and McBride have a four-year record of 130-14 (.903). Diggins and Turner were 130-20 (.867).

“I’m so glad they were able to get the record of most wins in a four-year career, because they’ve really earned it,” McGraw said. “This threesome has been pretty amazing. They’ve come a long way from their freshman year. They’ve worked hard, together. They’ve given us great leadership, and they’ve given us great performances on the court. I think the attitude that they’ve gotten the rest of the team to buy into, the work ethic, and what Notre Dame basketball is all about, they’re great ambassadors for our program.”

Battling in practice have made Notre Dame's Kayla McBride, right, and Jewell Loyd better players. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)