Present painful, future bright for Notre Dame women's hoops

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ky. — They are negotiating thoughts and feelings not experienced for more than five years.

That’s the strange set of circumstances facing Muffet McGraw, her staff and the Notre Dame women’s basketball team after their stunning Friday night upset loss, 90-84, in the NCAA regional at Rupp Arena.

Poised after a 31-1 regular season to launch a drive to their sixth straight Final Four, the Irish raced through two early round games, dumping North Carolina A&T and Indiana to reach the Sweet Sixteen in Lexington.

But then ...

Coach Tara VanDerveer’s Cardinal team shredded the Notre Dame defense like no other team has done this season. Stanford shot 56 percent during the game, and was 55 percent on 11-of-20 3-point shots. They led most of the game, but still had to withstand a fourth-quarter rally that put the Irish within three points of tying the game.

“I thought Stanford was the better team,'' McGraw said. "Defensively, we just couldn’t guard them. I thought we made a nice run in the second half and then they threw in the bank three almost from half court, and that was pretty much the game.”

The shot McGraw was referring to came after Madison Cable buried a shot to pull Notre Dame to within 81-78. The Irish locked down on defense, but with the clock winding down Stanford’s Karlie Samuelson flung in a desperation 3-pointer from several feet beyond the 3-point line that banked in and put the Cardinals up by six with only 1:26 to play. Samuelson was 5-for-6 from 3-point range and finished with 20.

It was the 3-point shot all night that doomed the Irish. Using a zone defense, Notre Dame was unable to rotate quickly enough to prevent a handful of uncontested threes from the deep corner.

“We figured out a way to dig down deep and get stops and convert on our offense,” said junior point guard Lindsay Allen “But you can’t spot a team with that kind of shooting percentage in the first half and expect to kind of dig your way out of the hole in the second half.”

Stanford led 50-39 at halftime and shot 64.5 percent in the opening two quarters to take control. Junior Erica McCall, a 6-3 forward, had 19 points in the opening half and finished with 27.

Seven seed Washington then upended the Cardinal in the regional final on Sunday, 85-76. for a trip to the Final Four.

“We’ve had a great season, '' McGraw said. "We had a nice run and hopefully that will motivate us to come back next year. I am so proud of the seniors and all they have done for this team.”

The tourney loss ended a 26-game winning streak, and 33-2 Notre Dame's only regular season loss was to Connecticut by 10 points, when the Irish played without star forward Brianna Turner.

There was considerable adversity along the way.

Turner was lost for six games due to a shoulder injury; Taya Reimer, a two-year starter, quit the team early in the season; and freshman Ali Patberg, a quality point guard who was Indiana’s Miss Basketball in 2015, blew out a knee in preseason practice.

The Irish reached the NCAA tourney for the 21st consecutive season (23rd overall) and reached the Sweet Sixteen for the seventh straight year.

The Irish future remains bright. Yes, gone will be the veteran trio of Michaela Mabrey, Hannah Huffman and grad student Cable, the bulk of the Irish leadership this past year. And the Irish will be looking to replace the drive, grit and toughness Cable showed in her remarkable final season.

“I think she was the most improved player in the nation,” McGraw has said.

Yet, nearly 71 percent of the Irish offensive production will be back next season, along with two of the most highly-touted incoming freshman in the nation. The two new Irish, Jackie Young of Princeton, Ind., and Erin Boley of Elizabethtown, Ky., will be playing in the McDonald’s All-American game (ESPNU, 6:30 p.m.) this Wednesday in Chicago.

Young was named the national Naismith player of the year, while Boley was the national Gatorade player of the year.

ACC Player of the Year Brianna Turner (shooting) returns to lead the Notre Dame women's basketball team in 2016-17. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)