Lesar: Losing game, Lindsay Allen emotional for Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Losing a winnable basketball game was the backdrop for the emotion.

After Sunday’s 76-75 Elite Eight loss to Stanford, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw successfully struggled through a locker room session with the local media. She was stoic, and as composed as the ultimate competitor can be in such a difficult situation.

Until the last question…

With an eye on the future, the Hall of Fame coach was asked what point guard Lindsay Allen meant to her the last four years.

Anger and frustration melted into the realization that Allen’s Irish career had come to an end. When things start again next November, after making it a habit in the last 149 games, McGraw won’t be writing Allen’s name in the starting lineup.

McGraw had trouble approaching the question. She tried to form words, but all that came out was a deep sigh. Then, a deep breath as her lip quivered.

Silence. A little more awkward silence.

“She (a couple seconds of silence, then her voice cracked) has been such a joy to coach,” McGraw said. “I hate to see it end this way for her.”

A deep breath. More silence. McGraw had no words left.

Allen was a steadying influence on a team that seemed to be running uphill from the start to the bitter end.

McGraw isn’t easily – or accidentally – drawn to superlatives, especially when it comes to her own team. That’s why, at the start of the season when she said this was her most talented team, people listened.

The Irish started the season ranked No. 1 in the country, but spent the rest of the season wrestling with those expectations.

When a bulk of the talent – sophomores Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale, and freshmen Jackie Young and Erin Boley – is young, it’s a dangerous road to be walking.

Dynamic young players can flash their potential, but getting it every night is a question. Consistency is probably the biggest concern with underclassmen.

It was an issue that bit the Irish often, though most times not badly enough to cost a loss.

An eight-point loss to North Carolina State and a two-point setback that followed a double-digit lead against Tennessee – within a couple weeks of each other, from late December to mid-January – was the bottom-out point of the season.

The gradual rebuild was precarious at times. A four-point escape from Atlantic Coast Conference bottom-feeder Clemson. A five-point win over Syracuse.

It wasn’t until a convincing 18-point win over Florida State, which clinched the ACC regular-season title, that the Irish found their stride. A sweep through the ACC Tournament had the Irish poised for NCAA Tournament success.

Until 48 seconds remained in the first half of a second-round meeting with Purdue…

That’s when All-American post Brianna Turner jumped, landed awkwardly on her left leg, and was lost for the rest of the tournament with an ACL tear.

Nobody had a clue what the reinvention of the Irish offense would look like. McGraw had an inkling of what the perimeter-based attack should be, but nobody knows for sure until it happens.

Ohio State saw what happened. The Irish were brilliant. The intensity was relentless. Notre Dame won by 23.

Rarely has McGraw been so joyful, in that same locker room, when she was beaming about her team’s response to adversity.

“It’s so fulfilling to see players achieve their potential,” McGraw said, with a wide smile and no hint of pressure or regret.

That changed Sunday. After another amazing first half, it all came crashing down. Legs got heavy. Consistency was lacking.

McGraw was left in the locker room, dealing with the devastating reality.

And wondering what she’ll do without Allen.

Stanford's Erica McCall (24) battles Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen (15) during the second half of a regional final of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Sunday, March. 26, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)