Road to Final Four was tricky, trying for Notre Dame women

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Friday might have been the first day of one wild week that Notre Dame sophomore guard Jackie Young didn’t wake in her hotel room and ask one basic question.

Where am I?

It’s the same question Young wondered about earlier this season when Notre Dame logged some serious road-warrior miles — nearly 10,000 — through November and early December. But to say that the last few days have been a whirlwind of plane flights and bus rides, strange arenas and hotel rooms doesn’t even begin to describe the team’s tornado of travel and glut of NCAA tournament games. The run continued late Friday night when Notre Dame (33-3) met top-ranked Connecticut (36-0) in the second national semifinal of the 2018 women’s Final Four at Nationwide Arena.

“It’s been pretty crazy,” Young said of an itinerary that had them skipping across the country and then back home and then out again all within a six-day window. “Waking up, you don’t really know what day it is. You lose track of the time, the day, where you’re at. But it’s a fun process.”

That process accelerated just after 11 p.m. Monday night eastern time. Notre Dame had just earned its eighth trip to the Final Four following a regional final victory over Oregon. The Spokane Regional final that was played 1,900 miles away from home and didn’t tip until after 9 p.m. eastern time. By the time the Irish had finished celebrating a regional championship, had loaded up their bus and trekked out to their waiting 737 charter flight at Spokane International Airport, it was close to 1 a.m. back home.

The Irish traveling party landed Tuesday in South Bend a little before 5:30 a.m.

“This has been the worst turnaround in NCAA history,” coach Muffet McGraw said of playing a Saturday-Monday regional so far from home. “To play that game on Monday night was really unfortunate.”

To compound the complexity of it all, the NCAA had originally requested that Notre Dame travel directly from Spokane to Columbus for this week’s Final Four. Notre Dame pushed back on that, insisting that it needed at least a few hours back in Indiana before heading for central Ohio. For the players to go to class. To steal a little rest. To get a clean collection of clothes. To take a deep breath, however brief.

“The quick turnaround was so hard on our bodies,” said junior guard Marina Mabrey. “We just went home, washed clothes, put them back in our bags and came back.”

Young didn’t even bother with laundry. She tossed one collection of dirty clothes in the corner of her dorm room and grabbed another round of wardrobe and was good to go. The Irish took a 32-minute charter flight Wednesday afternoon and arrived in Columbus, tended to a few media obligations and then practiced. Kind of.

“It was like sleep-walking,” McGraw said.

Players were afforded the opportunity to sleep in Thursday. By that afternoon, the Irish again were showing some signs of life. It still was hard for McGraw to comprehend that Friday already was game day. Some of her friends were just getting to town that day. By then, it was time for the players to lock in with shoot-around and scout and pre-game meal and routine.

But not before soaking in everything about the Final Four experience. Everything that had nothing to do with being in the arena or a press conference. Just being outside, around town, and feeling the buzz of women’s basketball. McGraw insisted the Irish take in as much in as possible. It’s part of the reward of a long journey.

“I don’t think you ever take it for granted, but when you go five years in a row (2011-15), you just expect it’s going to happen again,” she said. “This team earned it.”

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Notre Dame players practice during the NCAA Women’s Final Four media day events Thursday, March 29, 2018 inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA