Notre Dame's McGraw welcomes part of past to Purcell

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – You can go home again. Only Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw prefers to do it during the offseason.

She and husband Matt often get back to Philadelphia to visit family, sometimes even spending a week or two on the Jersey Shore near Atlantic City. Plus there’s the occasional visit to watch a high school phenom who might have an interest in Notre Dame.

You’ll have to excuse McGraw, however, if she’s not a fan of Steely Dan’s classic 1973 rock song, “My Old School.” You see, she’s just not a big fan of playing basketball games that have connections to her days of playing and coaching at Saint Joseph’s, the little Philadelphia 5 school with the Hawk mascot that flaps its wings from opening tip to the final buzzer.

Make no mistake about it – McGraw loves her old school, where she played point guard from 1973-77 as Ann “Muffet” O’Brien, helping the Hawks to their highest ranking (No. 3) ever and then returned as Muffet McGraw to spend two years as an assistant coach for Jim Foster before embarking on her own Hall of Fame coaching career in 1982 first at Lehigh for five seasons and the last 28 at Notre Dame.

For the third time in the first 12 games of the season, McGraw meets up with her Philadelphia roots Sunday when Saint Joseph’s pays a visit to the Purcell Pavilion. Tipoff for the game between the No. 5 Irish (10-1) and Hawks (3-6) is 1 p.m.

“My experiences at Saint Joseph’s are why I am here,” said McGraw, who has a national title (2001), been to four national title games, coached in six Final Fours and has 761 victories to her credit since leaving Saint Joseph’s first in 1977 with a sociology degree and then Hawk Hill for good following the 1981-82 season as Foster’s chief assistant.

“Playing there did so many great things for me,” she said. “I’m just glad we’re not playing at Saint Joseph’s because I’m sure I’d feel differently. I think it will be a little easier (playing) here. Once the ball goes up, I’m going to be fine.”

Earlier this season, Foster brought his current team, Chattanooga, to Purcell Pavilion and McGraw was uneasy sending her mentor back to Tennessee with an 88-53 setback to digest. Two weeks later, another Foster protégé, Geno Auriemma, the person McGraw replaced on Foster’s Saint Joseph’s staff back in 1980, brought his two-time defending NCAA champion Connecticut Huskies to Purcell and administered McGraw’s young Irish a 76-58 lesson on Dec. 6.

Sunday, McGraw matches coaching strategy with another Foster player and coaching prodigy, Cindy Griffin, who as Cindy Anderson had two points and four assists in 37 minutes when McGraw’s Irish earned a 72-53 victory in the championship game of the Texaco-Hawk Classic on Dec. 29, 1990. That victory evened the series record at 1-1 (Saint Joseph’s prevailed 71-57 in Philadelphia early in 1977).

“Wow, I didn’t remember that,” McGraw exclaimed. “I knew Cindy played (and coached) for Jim but I didn’t realize she played in that (1990) game.”

The two coaches don’t travel in the same social circles but they are familiar with tournament success. Griffin’s Hawks have five straight postseason appearances, including two to the NCAA tournament the last two seasons.

This season, however, Griffin has been forced to circle the wagons as injuries have greatly affected the Hawks in a 3-6 start that includes three losses in their last four outings. Saint Joseph’s last played Dec. 9 and dropped a 65-51 decision to Philadelphia 5 rival Penn. The Hawks, however, have been in town practicing since Friday.

“I am aware that Cindy has a short bench, but I am familiar with a couple of their players,” McGraw said.

Specifically, they are 6-foot senior guard Natasha Cloud, who Notre Dame recruited and who is averaging 10.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 35.1 minutes of action as a Naismith Player of the Year candidate. Her rebound and assist averages lead the team while her scoring average trails the 15.1 points per game by 5-9 junior guard Ciara Andrews and the 11.0 points per outing of 6-1 junior forward Sarah Fairbanks.

The other player McGraw is familiar with is 6-1 sophomore reserve forward Jessica Pongonis, who was Notre Dame sophomore forward Taya Reimer’s teammate at Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers, Ind.

“They are an athletic team that is going to give us some matchup problems,” McGraw said.

Notre Dame last played Dec. 13 when it scored a 70-50 victory over Michigan at Purcell Pavilion. Since then the Irish women have been busy with final exams and class papers and did not have formal workouts until Friday and Saturday.

McGraw is expected to once again start Reimer and four guards – All-American Jewell Loyd, point guard Lindsay Allen and wings Madison Cable and Michaela Mabrey. Don’t be surprised, too, if 6-foot-3 freshman forward Brianna Turner makes an early appearance on the court, her first since injuring her right shoulder in a Dec. 3 victory over Maryland in Fort Wayne.

“We just need (Turner) to get back into a little rhythm and try to get comfortable,” McGraw said. “She’s just starting to look comfortable in practice and that’s all we want to see.”

Following a short Christmas vacation with family, the Irish will gather in South Bend to practice on Saturday before flying to Los Angeles to play UCLA a week from Sunday, Dec. 28. The Atlantic Coast Conference schedule begins Friday, Jan. 2 with an evening game at Purcell against Florida State.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw takes another stroll down memory lane on Sunday, when St. Joseph's visits. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)

WHO: No. 5/4 Notre Dame (10-1) vs. Saint Joseph's, Pa. (3-6)

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

WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: The game can be seen via live streaming video at WatchND (watchnd.tv).

RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9)/WHPD-FM (92.1)

WORTH TOTING AND TOSSING: At halftime, Notre Dame will hold its 10th annual Teddy Bear Toss with fans invited to bring stuffed animals to the game for donation to local children's charities.

WORTH NOTING: Notre Dame enters the game ranked No. 5 by the Associated Press media and No. 4 in the Women's Basketball Coaches Association/USA Today poll. ... Thanks to Chattanooga's 54-46 upset of No. 7 Stanford, Notre Dame is No. 1 in the latest NCAA Women's Basketball RPI ratings. ... Chattanooga, which dropped an 88-53 decision to Notre Dame on Nov. 21, is coached by Jim Foster, the former Saint Joseph's head coach who gave Muffet McGraw her first collegiate coaching job in 1980. ... "It put us No. 1 in the RPI (so) I texted him (a thank you)," McGraw chuckled. ... Current Saint Joseph's coach Cindy Griffin got her coaching start with Foster as well and, unlike McGraw, played for him against McGraw's Irish in the championship game of the Texaco-Hawk Classic on Dec. 29, 1990. ... Notre Dame prevailed in the game 72-53 and Griffin, then Cindy Anderson, scored two points and had four assists in 37 minutes. ... In the only other meeting between the two schools, also in Philadelphia, Saint Joseph's won 71-57 on Jan. 24, 1987. ... Senior Madison Cable has averaged 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in the two games she has started against DePaul and Michigan. ... Lindsay Allen's 17 points against Michigan were a career high. ... Notre Dame ranks among the Top 10 teams nationally in several categories -- No. 3 in field-goal percentage (49.3) and margin of victory (31.9 points); fourth in assists per game (19.9); ninth in both assist-to-turnover ratio (1.37) and free-throw percentage (77.3); and 10th in rebound margin (12.7).

WORTH QUOTING: "Once the ball goes up I'm going to be fine." -- Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw about coaching against her alma mater Saint Joseph's. As the head coach at Lehigh, McGraw was 0-3 against her alma mater but is 1-0 at Notre Dame against the Hawks.