Second national championship still seems like a dream for Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Even before a visitor could finish asking, Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGaw was ready with an answer.

Guess what song was on when …

“What About Us,” McGraw offered as more of a statement than query.

Correct. The song that served as the theme for the 2018 NCAA women’s basketball tournament. The song that bounced from the speakers in Nationwide Arena on Easter Sunday night as McGraw and her staff and her players danced and celebrated as improbable a national championship as anyone has ever won. Even now, when McGraw hears that song by Pink, one of her favorite artists as it is, she stops. Listens. Remembers. Maybe even has a few chills run up her arm. And, eventually, she smiles.

Remember that song? That night? That moment? How it all seemingly unfolded in the blink of an eye? The flick of the right wrist from Irish guard Arike Ogunbowale. The basketball, frozen in the moment, rotating toward the rim from behind the 3-point line. In the corner in front of an Irish bench that was waiting and hoping to erupt.

And then, the end. The joy. The celebration. The 61-58 victory over Mississippi State. The national championship.

“The greatest Final Four ever,” a relaxed and reflective McGraw said last week from her Joyce Center corner office. “In any sport. Ever.”

Hard to fathom, perhaps, but also hard to argue. It might be some time before we again see something like those three games in those two memorable nights. Both national semifinals decided in overtime. Both Irish games decided by five total points. Ogunbowale making the first of her two big buckets to crush mighty Connecticut, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed seemingly on a collision course with national championship No. 12. Only Notre Dame wrecked that ride.

Once that happened, McGraw and the Irish figured, “What the heck, let’s just go and win the whole thing.’’

Sunday marks three months to the day that it all happened. For McGraw, it still seems like a dream. It would have been different had the Irish played their A+ game and rolled over Mississippi State in that title game. Had they been up by double digits late in the fourth quarter so McGraw could really realize what was to come. So she could plan on what to say to her team to cap a dream year that started with her being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. A year that ended with an ice bath in a Nationwide Arena locker room. The veteran coach in the middle of it all, soaking wet and soaking it all in.

But everything happened so quickly that it felt like it was all over in a second. The shot. The all-night celebration back at the team hotel. The bleary-eyed charter bus ride back to campus the next morning, the morning after the Columbus area was pounded by a late-spring snowstorm. The welcome back rally at the circle in the middle of campus. Then, nothing. Poof! Over.

“It feels like we didn’t even really have a big celebration,” McGraw said. “It felt like the girls were taking finals and then they were gone. I don’t know that we ever really sat down and appreciated what we did.”

McGraw never did get to gather that core to watch film of the title game. Of the moment. Of their moment. She still hasn’t watched the championship game from start to finish. She’s watched the second quarter when the Irish labored to score three points and the finish.

Her husband, Matt, usually has one of the team’s two Final Four games on nearly every night. Assistant coach Carol Owens told McGraw that she’s watched the Mississippi State game at least 15 times. The head coach? Nada.

“I relive it in my head,” McGraw said. “Every time I’m speaking somewhere and they have a clip of it, I just can’t stop smiling.”

And can’t stop reminding herself that it really did happen. Really.

“It’s still kind of something where I don’t feel like we had that moment of closure, just the team to talk about the fun.”

A way out

As the teams worked deeper through the second half, winning the school’s second national championship and first since 2001 was the furthest thought from McGraw’s mind. There was so much to figure out. What could the Irish run to get an easy basket? How could they get a defensive stop? Even when it all looked lost and Notre Dame trailed by five with 1:58 remaining, McGraw and her staff were so busy trying to figure a way through it that podiums and pandemonium weren’t on their minds. Survival was.

“You’re never thinking that we can win this game,” she said. “I really didn’t think we’d have the opportunity to win it the way we were playing.”

For as poorly as the Irish played, it was like they suddenly figured it out and flipped the switch. and the script. When it was go time, the Irish got going. Jessica Shepard. Ogunbowale. Kathryn Westbeld. Marina Mabrey. Jackie Young. Even Kristina Nelson. All delivered big plays and big minutes at big moments to set up the biggest shot in school history. Maybe in women’s tournament history.

The look of shock across McGraw’s face as the ball fell through the hoop and the horn sounded and the bedlam began said it all. Remember that expression? It’s the way McGraw felt for the minutes and hours and days afterward.

“It was like, ‘Did that just happen?’” she said. “We just won?! After a season of things never seeming to go our way and then twice things go our way, it was totally unexpected.

“To win it like that, we just kept shaking our heads. Like, can you still believe it?”

McGraw still can’t. Last season was such a grind that part of her thought the obstacles never would end. For the rest of April, McGraw didn’t sleep more than a few hours at night. Some nights, not at all. She was running on pure adrenaline while waiting for the next scout session. The next practice. The next game. The next challenge. Trouble was, there was no next.

“I was like, ‘You don’t have another game; you’re good; it’s over,’” McGraw said. “I still couldn’t sleep.”

Following Ogunbowale’s shot, McGraw had nearly 300 text messages waiting on her phone. In the days that followed, she collected calls from former players, fellow coaches and old friends. She heard from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She also got a call from a number she didn’t recognize. When that happens, McGraw lets it roll to voicemail about 99.9 percent of the time. But not that one.

“I was kind of like, ‘What the heck,’” McGraw said.

Hello?

“Hey, it’s Steve Spurrier!” drawled the voice with the heavy southern accent.

McGraw had met the old ball coach at an Under Armour event several years back. After watching the national championship game on TV, Spurrier called Duke athletic director Kevin White, McGraw’s old boss at Notre Dame, and asked for her number. He got it. He dialed it.

“He just called to say how great the Final Four was,” McGraw said. “Like, out of the blue. People who didn’t even watch our sport tuned in. I heard Phil Mickelson watched the last seconds of the championship game. Really?’’

As April became May and May became June, well-wishers still wanted to talk with McGraw about the national championship. But then one day, the script flipped. Family and friends and fans wanted to talk not about that championship run from nowhere, but about NEXT season. One when Notre Dame will be the favorite to do it all again.

What About Us?

“I was like, ‘No, no,’” McGraw said. “I’m not ready for next year. Don’t go there yet.”

Even the visitor who stopped at her office last week was expecting the veteran coach to admit that she was tired of talking about the national championship run, tired of reliving the magic moments, tired talking about the magic. That maybe she wanted to get on to 2018-19 and how Notre Dame will incorporate the return of Brianna Turner, who missed last season with injury, and the addition of four talented freshmen.

But McGraw still wasn’t there. She’ll enjoy last season for today and tomorrow and maybe the rest of the week because in many ways, next season is about here. Notre Dame held its first two offseason practices last week. The summer recruiting cycle is about to rev up. The end of the month brings the 10-day foreign tour of Italy and Croatia. After that, players will get barely a week to recover before school starts. There will be no celebration visit to the White House. An invitation was not extended.

Then there’s the on-field recognition of the national championship team planned for the Sept. 1 home football game against Michigan. The raising of the championship banner before the team’s first game. Likely a quiet dinner when the coaches and players receive their rings. Then the chase begins to do it all again.

McGraw’s not ready for any of that. Not yet.

“I still don’t want any questions about it,” she said of next season. “I still want to enjoy this one.”

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw and guard Arike Ogunbowale celebrate after winning the national championship. Three months later, it all seems like a dream for the Hall of Fame coach.
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, greeted by fans as the women’s basketball team arrives on campus April 2, isn’t quite ready to think about next season.

“I relive it in my head. Every time I’m speaking somewhere and they have a clip of it, I just can’t stop smiling.”

ND head coach Muffet McGraw who has yet to watch film of the national championship game in its entirety