Emotional moment for Irish senior McBride

South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The game face never left Notre Dame star Kayla McBride.

Not until she was subbed out of the national championship game with 17 seconds left and the Irish were on their way to a 79-58 defeat at the hands of Connecticut.

Then, as McBride reached the Irish bench, tears started streaming down her face as the Irish dream of a perfect season ended on the Bridgestone Arena court in Nashville. The 5-foot-11 senior from Erie, Pa., scored 21 points in her final game wearing Irish colors.

“It’s hard, it’s hard because I look about my teammates, and I care about them so much, and I care about coach so much ... it’s just hard,” McBride said in a somber Irish locker room.

McBride still led her team, comforting the Irish after the painful loss to Connecticut.

“We have to keep our heads up, and realize that we represent Notre Dame, no matter what happens,” McBride said. “We accomplished so much this year, and we have to remember that we’re still a team, and we have to act like a team.”

McBride said the Irish were the hardest working team in the country, trying to get back to a fourth consecutive Final Four despite the graduation of All-American point guard Skylar Diggins.

“People counted us out as soon as Skylar graduated,” McBride said. “We did things people didn’t think we could do, and that says something about coach (Muffet) McGraw, the girls in here, and I don’t take anything away from that, no matter what the score was.”

Building a team

A tradition of excellence on the basketball court, a world-class education, star power — they’ve all been factors in building this season’s Notre Dame women’s basketball team.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw thinks that all of those factors converge for recruits when they consider Notre Dame, but that the recent run of Final Fours and the popularity of former point guard Skylar Diggins has played a role.

“I think it’s the total package, but I think we looked at the Skylar effect, and it was a big one,” McGraw said. “People watched us because they wanted to watch Skylar, but after they watched Skylar, they said, ‘Hey, this team is pretty good, it’s a good school, and a beautiful campus, there are so many good things about it, and it looks like a fun place to play,’ but I think Skylar got it started.”

Kayla McBride announced her commitment to Notre Dame during her sophomore season, before the Skylar effect kicked in.

“I loved the environment, I loved the camaraderie I felt across the campus, and I loved the fact that I could play for coach McGraw, who I think is the best coach in the country,” McBride said of the reasons she chose Notre Dame. “I remember going to a football game, everything, the academics, it was so much more than basketball that attracted me to Notre Dame.”

Irish assistant coach Niele Ivey said the run of four consecutive Final Fours and playing in a high-powered league like the Atlantic Coast Conference offers a strong appeal to recruits, in addition to Notre Dame’s academics and recent history of producing WNBA first-round picks (four in the past three seasons, and possibly two this season).

Sophomore Jewell Loyd, who is already being mentioned as a prospective first-round pick in the WNBA, turned down offers from Connecticut and nearby DePaul to choose Notre Dame. She said the lure of a chance to win a national title, the proximity to her Chicago home and the chance to play with Diggins were factors, but it came down to something more.

“I chose Notre Dame because it felt like family,” Loyd said. “They cared more about me and my academics than about my jump shot, and that meant a lot to me.”

ACC scheduling

Notre Dame’s home-and-home partners in Atlantic Coast Conference play next season will be Boston College and Georgia Tech. The Irish played Duke and Boston College home-and-home this season.

ACC senior associate commissioner Nora Lynn Finch said that women’s basketball in the league will continue to play a 16-game conference schedule, instead of going to 18 games.

In the Big East, the conference tried to balance two home-and-home games. Notre Dame would play home-and-home against one top tier team, usually Connecticut, and one lower tier team. The ACC home-and-home philosophy is more complex, taking into consideration branding, equity and budgets.

Finch said the ACC wanted to maintain traditional rivalries within the ACC, but to also allow the new members to assimilate the conference brand through its scheduling. Using that philosophy, the ACC developed several scheduling principles.

North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina State wanted to maintain the Triangle rivalries, so they will be pitted against each other in home-and-home games.

“The Boston College-Notre Dame rivalry is pretty evident, because you have two of the premier Catholic universities,” Finch said. “Georgia Tech is an Atlanta market, and that’s a good market for Notre Dame, and Notre Dame is a good market for Georgia Tech.”

Finch, said it was important that each school gets one home game each season with either Duke or North Carolina, which means one trip to either Duke or North Carolina each season.

“Duke and North Carolina are brand names for the ACC,” Finch said. “For Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pitt, that really helps them identify with the ACC.”

Finch also wants each school to have one trip to Florida each season, so Miami and Florida State will be split on a team’s home-and-road schedule.

“I don’t know an athlete who doesn’t want to go to Florida in the winter each year,” Finch said. “And it’s important to have a presence in Florida each season, because that state has some of the best talent in America.”

Notre Dame and Louisville were separated on home-and-road schedules for the sake of competitive equity, and Finch was able to accomplish that with all schools but two.

Finally, Finch wanted to separate cold-weather schools Boston College, Syracuse and Notre Dame, so that no school would have road trips to all three of the northern-most schools in the ACC.

Finch said that the conference tried to accommodate each member institution.

“This is a collegial conference, and there was respect for the impact (the scheduling) would have,” Finch said. “Why have somebody in your family really unhappy, when everybody can compromise and be OK.”

Coaching evolution

McGraw said that she has changed throughout her coaching career, strategically, and personally.

Known as a student of the game, McGraw is always tweaking the Princeton offense that the Irish run. She recruits players to the Princeton offense, particularly posts who can pass, but also molds the pass-oriented offense to fit the strengths of her players.

McGraw feels she has changed in terms of her relationships with her players, making sure that they have more than just a basketball experience at Notre Dame. When the Irish take road trips, cultural experiences such as Broadway plays are worked into the agenda.

Game demeanor is also different for McGraw.

“The patience and trying to be calmer on the sidelines, not worrying about what the referees are calling or things that happen in the game, that’s different,” McGraw said. “You have to show the players that you have to be able to handle things like that and move on.”

Notre Dame's Kayla McBride was handed the season's lone loss in her final collegiate game Tuesday in the national championship game against Connecticut. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)