Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw will clash with old friend Friday

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – As he watches his Chattanooga women’s basketball team warm up to play third-ranked Notre Dame late Friday afternoon before the 5 p.m. tipoff, Jim Foster’s wandering eyes may possibly come upon the one banner hanging by itself from the west-side rafters over the Purcell Pavilion floor.

If you look closely, you might see a smile come across the 66-year-old Foster’s face.

That banner reads: Muffet McGraw, 2011, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Jim Foster – 2013, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame – has his fingerprints all over McGraw’s banner.

McGraw, a Philadelphia native, played for the Saint Joseph’s College Hawks before Foster started his college coaching career there in 1978. A few years later, Foster needed someone to replace an assistant who had left Saint Joseph’s to elevate the program at Connecticut, and that’s how Muffet McGraw replaced Geno Auriemma, a Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame member himself.

“Jim gave me my first job,” McGraw said fondly. “When I first got to Lehigh, I’d call him up a couple of times a week and we’d talk just about anything. I continued that when I got here. He’s the one person I really leaned on when I was learning. He’s a great teacher.”

You could say with Foster, Auriemma and McGraw in its DNA, Saint Joseph’s is the Cradle of Women’s Basketball Coaches.

What Foster saw back then in the early 1980s is still evident today about McGraw. “She had a lot of passion for what she did and had a lot of energy,” Foster said. “I think those two things pay a lot of dividends when you get in a gym.”

Friday’s coaching duel between Foster the mentor and McGraw the student will be the eighth time their teams have met in 33-plus seasons. Though student holds a 4-3 edge over mentor, eight games are too many for McGraw.

“I don’t like coaching against friends,” said McGraw, who lost the first three games she coached against Foster and Saint Joseph’s while she was at Lehigh but now has won the last four while at Notre Dame against Foster-coached teams at Saint Joseph’s (once), Vanderbilt (once) and Ohio State (twice).

The biggest was a 72-54 victory over Vanderbilt in the NCAA West Regional final in Denver on March 26, 2001 that helped the Ruth Riley-led Notre Dame team to the school’s only NCAA championship.

Friday’s meeting between Chattanooga and Notre Dame came about when Foster called seeking a big-time tune-up for his team prior to its Volunteer State showdown with Tennessee on Wednesday, Nov. 26.

“This is actually the first game we set up and I was opposed,” McGraw said. “I don’t like to play my friends, which is pretty easy because I don’t have that many in coaching. When he called and said he wanted to get on the schedule, we talked about it a little bit and agreed to do it. I just don’t like it – I’m too competitive.”

Foster admitted he wanted this game for the young team he has after going 29-4 in his first season at Chattanooga.

“I’m at a stage in life that that stuff doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “It’s really great for our university and our program (to be playing Notre Dame) and I think Muffet understands that.”

Like her mentor, McGraw has become a good teacher herself. When a message is needed, she gets one across. Wednesday night in East Lansing as the foul-plagued Irish struggled early against the Spartans, McGraw leaned in and told sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen that she needed to step up her game.

Junior All-American Jewell Loyd was sitting on the bench with two fouls as were frontcourt standouts Taya Reimer, Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld. McGraw needed someone to take control of the game at both ends of the court, and Allen accepted her marching orders. She drove to the basket, she hit jumpers from outside, she fed her teammates and she led the fast break.

What resulted was perhaps Allen’s best all-around performance in an Irish uniform – in 38 minutes, she scored 14 points, had nine rebounds and five assists and did not commit a turnover.

“We’ve been trying to get Lindsay to score more because we think she’s capable,” McGraw said. “Last year, I think, she sacrificed her scoring for the good of the team.”

Message No. 2 to the Irish from McGraw was to get the ball into Turner down low. The 6-3 freshman, who scored 29 points in the season-opening 105-51 victory over Massachusetts Lowell, was held scoreless in the first 20 minutes by the Spartans. With her teammates focusing on her, Turner scored Notre Dame’s first 10 points of the second half for a 39-35 lead, one the Irish would not relinquish the rest of the way.

“We were going to Brianna on the first play of the second half,” McGraw admitted. Turner finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots.

Clearly, players still listen to Hall of Fame coaches.

WORTH NOTING

A pair of Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame coaches renew their long friendship tonight when Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and the Irish go up against her coaching mentor and former boss, Jim Foster, and his Chattanooga Mocs. ... The student has an overall record of 753-259 in 33-plus seasons at Lehigh and Notre Dame, while the teacher is 814-312 in 36-plus seasons with previous stops at Saint Joseph’s, Vanderbilt and Ohio State. … McGraw is 4-3 in head-to-head games against those teams coached by Foster, who is the godfather to McGraw and husband Matt’s son Murphy.

The Mocs opened the season last Friday at McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga with a 49-45 victory over Villanova, but dropped a 59-57 decision to South Florida last Sunday in McKenzie. … Chattanooga’s starting five the first three games has been 6-2 sophomore and 5-9 sophomore Aryanna Gilbert in the frontcourt with 5-10 senior Ka’Vonne Towns, 5-11 freshman Keiana Gilbert and 5-4 sophomore Chelsey Shumpert in the backcourt. … Joyner, who had a team-high 20 points with 9 rebounds against Butler, had 16 points and 20 rebounds (8 on the offensive board) against Villanova. … Towns had a team-high 18 points in the victory over Butler.… Notre Dame returns Sunday at Purcell Pavilion against Holy Cross in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Women’s Challenge at 5 p.m. 

WORTH QUOTING

“I don’t like playing my friends because I’m too much of a competitor.” – Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw about facing her coaching mentor, Chattanooga’s Jim Foster, Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. in the Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw questions a call during the NCAA women's basketball Elite Eight tournament game on Monday, March 31, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: Notre Dame (2-0) vs. Chattanooga (2-1)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), South Bend.

WHEN: Friday at 5 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: None. The game will be streamed live on Notre Dame’s multimedia platform, WatchND.tv.

RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9) and WHPD-FM (92.1).