Notre Dame to honor Beth Cunningham for impact on program

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Mapquest wasn't an option in 1997.

Getting from Point A to Point B took a measure of focus and, in some cases, persistence.

Link that idea to Notre Dame women's basketball, circa '97.

Unlike today, with a road map to the Final Four clearly defined and refined, those were uncharted waters more than two decades ago.

Venturing into the sport's elite hardly seemed possible for a program wallowing in mediocrity, pre-occupied with making the transition from the Midwestern Collegiate Conference to the Big East.

Then came Beth Morgan, a 6-foot hotshot shooting guard from Bloomington, who transformed the Irish.

“Beth was really the first big-time player that we got,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “She took us to our first Final Four (as a senior in '97). She scored over 2,000 points (2,322, to be exact). She took us from nowhere. We weren't even ranked, coming off a losing season.

“She came in as a freshman and took us to new heights. Went to the (NCAA) tournament each year. She's probably the only player we've ever had get a standing ovation – at Connecticut – when she left the game.”

Now she is Beth Cunningham, a 41-year-old member of McGraw's coaching staff, who will get at least one more standing ovation Sunday. After Notre Dame's game with Virginia, Cunningham's banner in the Ring of Honor will be unveiled.

“Even though we hadn't been there on that stage, or won at an elite level, I felt that we had everything in place,” Cunningham said. “We had a great coach; pieces in place … people who were willing to buy in and play their role wherever they were needed to help.

“We had a belief in each other. When you put the work, the sacrifice and dedication, and wanted it so badly, you had a level of confidence. Can we do it? We knew we could.”

Cunningham laughed at how naive she and her teammates were back then. Without the Internet or social media, their knowledge of an opponent was based on what the coaches told them. Neither McGraw nor her assistants gave any inkling of the talent at the University of Texas, a team the Irish beat in the Sweet 16.

It wasn't until later, when Cunningham was playing professional ball, that it struck her.

“We were in our own little bubble,” Cunningham said. “(Texas) was loaded. I'm playing professionally, then I see: Their whole roster's in the league.

“It didn't matter who we were playing. We wanted to go out with our best foot forward.”

It was a pretty good foot. The Irish lost a double-digit decision to eventual champion Tennessee in the semifinals of the Final Four, but that appearance established the foundation that ultimately carried the 2001 Irish to the national title.

“She brought us to where we believed we could get there,” said McGraw. “That was the start of it. The first one's the hardest to get to.”

While she was a junior at Notre Dame, Beth Morgan met a guy who turned out to be one of the male practice players for the Irish women, Dan Cunningham. They dated and married in 1998.

“We're both competitive,” Beth said of her husband. “It didn't matter who (she and her teammates) were playing, we wanted to win. That's how I approached everything. There were never any distractions (not even dating) that were going to deter us from what we wanted to do.”

Sunday, she'll be focused again. It's all about figuring out a way to get her shooters in line to pull out a win over Virginia. Afterward, the moment will belong to her.

But, with four kids under 5 years old and attention spans not lasting too long, don't look for Cunningham to challenge last week's marathon David Rivers thank-you speech.

Cunningham will be charting her own path.

She's been pretty good at that.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw talks with then-senior forward Beth Morgan (now Cunningham) during a practice before an NCAA Tournament Game.