Experience benefits Notre Dame women

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame is heading to its fourth consecutive NCAA college women’s basketball Final Four.

Connecticut is going to its record seventh consecutive Final Four.

Stanford will be in the Final Four for the sixth time in the past seven seasons.

Maryland was in the Final Four in 2006.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said that having the experience of coaching and playing in a Final Four is beneficial.

“It’s always better to have experience,” McGraw said. “It’s nice to know what to expect, knowing how the day is going to go, what’s expected of you with the media, how to handle the open practice.”

Having an understanding of what to expect can have a calming influence on the players, according to McGraw, who expects the upperclassmen to talk the freshmen through their first experience.

Still, McGraw expects every player who steps out onto the court for Sunday’s National Semifinal games and Tuesday’s national championship game to have to deal with nerves.

“I think the excitement of the moment is going to hit everybody,” McGraw said.

“Everybody is anxious to play, and there are always going to be some nervous moments.”

No. 1 seed Notre Dame (36-0) plays against No. 4 seed Maryland (28-6) in a national semifinal game at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville (ESPN). No. 1 seed Connecticut (38-0) takes on No. 2 seed Stanford (33-3) in the second national semifinal game. The national championship game is set for 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday (ESPN).

Achonwa support

Notre Dame star post Natalie Achonwa, who will miss the Final Four with a torn ACL suffered in Monday’s regional championship, has received plenty of support from the basketball community in both the United States and her native Canada.

“We’ve gotten texts from other people who have gone through the same thing this year, and it’s been really nice for her,” McGraw said.

One of the people who understands what Achonwa is going through is her boyfriend, Drexel’s Damion Lee. He suffered a torn ACL on Dec. 13, in a 66-62 loss to Arizona, and missed the rest of the Dragons’ season. Lee was averaging 13 points for the Dragons in five games, and averaged 17.1 points a game in the previous season.

“They have a lot to talk about,” McGraw said of Achonwa and Lee both suffering ACL injuries.

Still dangerous

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma lost two first-team All-Americans in 2001 — Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph — and still made the Final Four, where it was beaten by eventual national champion Notre Dame. The Huskies lost Ralph in the Big East championship game.

“I know exactly what it feels like to all of a sudden, you’ve got to retool your team,” Auriemma said. “It’s not something that you wish on any team, and certainly you don’t wish that kind of injury on any player.”

Auriemma said that Notre Dame is still a contender despite Achonwa being out of the tournament.

“That just means Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride are going to take even more shots, which makes them more dangerous,” Auriemma said. “Losing (Achonwa) really, really, really hurts ... I guess we’ll see this weekend how much.”

Impact player

Notre Dame recruit Brianna Turner earned MVP honors at the McDonald’s All-America game in Chicago on Wednesday.

Turner, a 6-foot-3 forward who led her Manvel High School team to a Texas state championship, hit the game-winning shot with 53 seconds left in the West’s 80-78 victory against the East. She blocked a shot in the final seconds to preserve the victory.

Turner had 11 points and 10 rebounds, and earned MVP honors.

Challenging job

McGraw said that Tyler Summitt, the son of Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt, will face quite a challenge as a young coach. Summitt, who is 23 years old, was hired to be the head coach at Louisiana Tech after serving as an assistant coach at Marquette.

“Well, I was coaching high school at age 23, and when I looked back on it years later, I thought, I don’t know how I did it, because I didn’t know anything,” McGraw said.

McGraw said that the Xs and Os are the smallest aspect of coaching a team at the college level. She said that recruiting is critical, and that coaches also have to deal with community and alumni relations, working with a budget, and managing a staff.

“I think that most people have been assistant coaches for a long time when they get the head coaching job,” McGraw said. “It’s a very difficult transition, and I don’t think I would have been prepared for that at 23.”

Auriemma said that he was driving a grocery store truck when he was 23 years old.

“I think when you’re young and it’s your first head coaching job and you’ve only been a coach for a couple of years, I think two years as an assistant, heck, I was 30 when I got the job here at Connecticut, and that was my first head coaching job, and I thought I knew everything about everything,” Auriemma said. “Two years later I realized I didn’t know anything about anything.”

CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Twitter: @rallo NDInsider

Notre Dame players including Jewell Loyd, center, listen to coach Muffet McGraw before a practice on Friday, March 28, 2014, at the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER

WHAT: NCAA Tournament, national semifinal

WHO: No. 1 seed Notre Dame (36-0) vs. No. 4 Maryland (28-6)

WHERE: Bridgestone Arena (20,000), Nashville, Tenn.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. EDT Sunday

TV: ESPN

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9, 92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com

TICKETS: Check www.ncaa.com for availability.