Muffet McGraw on the lookout for leaders for Notre Dame

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND - Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw and the team’s fans agree on one thing: The Irish are nice.

It’s the level of niceness, however, that concerns the veteran coach.

“We’re too nice,” said McGraw, the toughness of her Philadelphia blue-collar roots showing.

There were smiles before, during and after Monday’s practice at the Purcell Pavilion that was open to the general public. The crowd of 400 fans who turned out had plenty to cheer about as McGraw and her staff put the team through a 90-minute workout.

McGraw wouldn’t mind seeing a little more toughness, like what Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa brought to the table during last season’s undefeated run to the NCAA national championship game, won by Connecticut 79-58. McBride and Achonwa more than made up for the graduation of Skylar Diggins with their gritty play and in-your-face toughness.

Etched in history is Achonwa, after suffering a knee injury that would keep out of the NCAA Final Four games and her first WNBA season while it was surgically repaired, imploring her teammates to “Win this (game). This is my court!”

McGraw doesn’t think her 2014-15 Irish have those kind of take-charge leaders like McBride and Achonwa yet, but she does think they have some candidates: Juniors Michaela Mabrey and Jewell Loyd, and sophomore Lindsay Allen.

“Michaela (a 5-foot-10 wing from Belmar, N.J.) currently is the most vocal on the team,” said McGraw. “Lindsay (a 5-7 point guard who started all 38 games her freshman year) is doing a nice job within her group. Jewell (a 5-10 junior who led the Irish in scoring at 18.6 points a game) has the personality skills to lead as well.”

There’s also seniors Markisha Wright and Madison Cable as well. McGraw would prefer not to have Loyd have to shoulder too much. “That’s why Michaela and Lindsay need to do most of it,” she said. “We’re just too nice.”

Rookies welcome

McGraw had to like the way the team’s three freshmen – guard Mychal Johnson and forwards Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld – handled a 30-minute question-and-answer period after practice. If anything, their responses to a variety of questions may be an indication that they won’t shy away from any of the tough situations they will encounter once the season begins.

When asked what their favorite place on campus was, Johnson and Westbeld said the team’s locker room. Turner, who would like to add a few pounds and muscle to her 6-3 frame, had a different spot.

“The South Dining Hall,” she said to laughter.

McGraw acknowledged that her team enjoys spending time with the fans and vice versa.

“We want to play well for them because we love how they support us,” she said. “They are very intelligent, too. They know when we need to get a stop and they cheer hard. I know the team appreciates that.”

Starting five

With the team’s exhibition game against Ferris State a week from Wednesday (Nov. 5), McGraw and her staff are still trying to determine a starting five and what role the others will play. It’s not inconceivable that all 13 players on the roster could have some kind of playing role this season.

Currently the team is in good health, with only sophomore center Diamond Thompson sidelined with an ankle sprain.

Cable, who didn’t have a start in 37 games last season, has been impressive during the preseason and has put herself into contention for a starting spot.

“Madison is playing well and we need someone right now who can provide a spark,” McGraw said.

Loyd and Allen, who started all the games they played, would seem to be locks, while Cable and Mabrey are candidates to fill the spot vacated by McBride. Wright and Turner would seem to be the starting forwards, although you can’t count out sophomore Taya Reimer, who started six games last season, averaged 7.4 points and led the team in blocks with 52.

“This is a team that wants to learn,” McGraw said. “It’s very coachable. They want to do things right.”

Ticket talk

Single-game tickets for the season are currently on sale at the Purcell Pavilion ticket office. The season officially opens Friday, Nov. 14 against Massachusetts-Lowell at 6 p.m. at the Purcell Pavilion. Following a Nov. 19 road trip to Michigan State, the Irish return home to play four games in five days against Chattanooga (Nov. 21), Holy Cross (Nov. 23), Harvard (Nov. 24) and Quinnipiac (Nov. 25).

Notre Dame plays Maryland at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 3 and returns on Dec. 6 to play defending national champion Connecticut at the Purcell Pavilion in the Jimmy V Women’s Classic.

Single-game tickets are available in person, by phone (574-631-7356) or online at und.com/buytickets).

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wouldn't mind seeing point guard Lindsay Allen develop into a take-charge leader this winter. (SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)