'The passion with the fans is incredible'

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- More than a basketball team. Way beyond the scope of wins and losses.

What the Notre Dame women have grown into over the last four years has been a phenomenon that can only happen in college sports.

No fence physically separates the university from the South Bend community, but, just pay attention, there's definitely a barrier.

Kinda like, never the twain shall meet.

Except for women's basketball games.

Irish football and men's basketball games are more like events; places the privileged go to be seen and entertained. Women's basketball games are a chance for 9,000 fans to cheer for their adopted granddaughters.

"Much to the chagrin of some officials, when (a Notre Dame player) is fouled and there's no call, (the fans will object) 'That's my granddaughter you just hit,'" said Jill Bodensteiner, senior associate athletics director who oversees Irish women's basketball.

What the Irish have done recently -- highlighted by Final Four appearances each of the last four years -- has bridged that gap. The players are ambassadors for the university. Coach Muffet McGraw is the catalyst of the groups coming together.

And tonight's semifinal matchup with Maryland is another celebration of the relationship.

"What comes to mind is (athletic director Jack Swarbrick's) five pillars (on which) our department operates," Bodensteiner said. "One of those is 'community.' People shorthand that into 'community service.' In our mind, community means within the department, within the university, and within the broader structure.

"This (basketball) program has created more sense of community ... This team is about community, within itself and within the big picture.

"You saw what happened when we played in the (BCS) national championship in football. The best outcome of that was the community and the fellowship."

Besides the band, student support of the women's basketball team is minimal. Strange that peers won't gravitate toward such success. No matter. The loyal folks from the community make for a hot ticket.

"The passion with the fans is incredible," said Bodensteiner. "A huge part of that is the accessibility, the personality of our student-athletes. That's just part of the women's game, its grass roots. When I first started as administrator for this team five years ago, I came out one morning and (former player) Erica Williamson was handing out donuts (to people standing in line to buy season tickets). You don't get that in other sports.

"It all comes back to coach McGraw. She sets the tone. She sets the expectations. The young women we've had have been such great ambassadors of the university and the program.

"That's why, in this day and age of questioning about the role of college athletics, that's why we do it: The community it creates."

Irish assistant coach Carol Owens, in her second stint at the university (14 years in all), can appreciate what the relationship has become.

"I always have been told that athletics is the front porch of the university," Owens said. "Because athletics gets so much exposure, it brings a lot of positive attention to the university. The last four years, coach McGraw has (done so much for) the exposure, the recognition to the university as a whole.

"I know (university president Rev. John) Jenkins is really proud of how we've represented our institution so well in the community. You saw that in (the NCAA Regional at Notre Dame) how much this team means to this community in South Bend."

"It takes so many people to make a program," said McGraw. "There's so much more than just the coaches and the team -- the administration; everybody around the program, the support staff has been so critical to us.

"I'm just so proud that we've brought such a positive image to Notre Dame."

Now, all the Irish have to do is win. Right?

After two opportunities as a maid of honor (runner-up in 2011 and 2012) and once in the wedding party (2013), how important is it for Notre Dame to finally win the title for the first time since 2001?

"I don't know if I really look at it as getting 'over the hump,'" said assistant coach and former Irish player Beth Cunningham. "We've won a national championship. It's not that we haven't been here and haven't done it.

"It's more about playing your best two games of the season and having it come together. We don't look at it as a monkey on our back. We know how to do it."

In that case, it's time to get it done.

And really give the community something to cheer about.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6318

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa looks more like a coach as she watches from the bench after suffering a season-ending injury earlier in the week during the NCAA Women's Final Four media day events on Saturday, April 5, 2014, inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Madison Cable has her feet taped before practice during the NCAA Women's Final Four media day events on Saturday, April 5, 2014, inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN