Can Notre Dame women go 5-for-5? Why not?

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — The only other time Notre Dame women’s basketball ever brought a losing record into a conference tournament, the Irish went on to win the tournament.

ND gets a shot to make it two for two in that regard when it competes in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tourney this week in Greensboro, N.C.

The Irish, though, will need to win five games in five days.

ND’s never even played four straight days.

“It was challenging and frustrating,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Tuesday while reflecting for a moment on 1991-92, a season in which the Irish stood 11-16 going into the Midwestern Collegiate Conference Tourney.

“We were able to get it together for the tournament,” McGraw said, “but we didn’t have to play five games in five days, so it was a little different.”

ND, the 8-4 regular-season runner-up to Xavier in a seven-team MCC back then, whipped Dayton in the opening round after splitting with the Flyers during the regular season, nearly doubled-up Detroit in the semifinals, then reversed its 0-2 regular-season against the Musketeers with a 59-54 win in the championship.

That resulted — ironically, based on the team’s 14-16 overall mark at the time — in Notre Dame’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid, an automatic spot awarded to the MCC Tourney champ.

The Irish had ridden roughshod over the MCC during the previous three years, going 43-3 in the regular season and adding conference tourney titles all three times, but the NCAA had deemed the league unworthy of a big-dance automatic spot until ’92.

Flash forward to 2020 and ND’s only way into this NCAA Tourney, a feat that would extend its string of appearances to 25, is likely by grabbing the automatic berth that goes this weekend to the ACC Tourney champ.

“We were a team in that league that could do that,” McGraw said of what happened in ’92, “but the ACC’s a little tougher than the MCC was.”

Frankly, it’s worlds tougher.

Still, this is a chance to add another twist to a season that’s been peppered by some seemingly unforeseen twists already.

“This whole season has just been one big bottle of excitement,” McGraw deadpanned, “(but) yeah, I mean, it’s something that nobody’s ever done it, so let’s do it.”

At a minimum, the Irish are playing their best ball, according to their coach, with a three-game winning streak topped off by a 70-67 road win Sunday at No. 19 Florida State.

An even more extended run of victories doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did.

“We’ve been talking about that,” grad-student guard Destinee Walker said Tuesday of the five-in-five challenge. “We’re ready. We can make it to Sunday if we play hard.”

Walker, who recently had her request for another year of eligibility approved by the NCAA, on Monday became the only Irish player named to this year’s all-ACC team, landing an honorable mention slot.

Freshman Sam Brunelle, meanwhile, garnered ESPN’s national player of the week nod for her performances against North Carolina and FSU.

“We’ve been learning that we have so much fight and so much potential in ourselves as a team as a whole,” Brunelle said Tuesday. “I think we’re doing a better job of finding the open man in general and not being selfish about it, so it’s going great, and we’re playing relaxed, so that’s good.”

Notre Dame (13-17) heads into the ACC Tourney as the No. 10 seed.

In the 42-year history of the event, the lowest seeds to win it are No. 5 North Carolina in 1984 and No. 5 Maryland in 1986.

The No. 1 seed has lived up to that billing 17 of the last 19 years — including the Irish as the No. 1 seed in five of the last six. ND was the second seed, and the runner-up, during its 2018 national title season.

Cole in doubt

In a potential blow to Notre Dame’s already shallow depth, senior Katie Cole turned an ankle during Tuesday’s practice just ahead of the team’s departure for Greensboro.

McGraw said she was uncertain of the senior’s playing status for Wednesday afternoon’s game against Pittsburgh pending further discussion with trainer Anne Marquez.

Cole is one of just two players the Irish typically bring off their bench, joined by sophomore Danielle Cosgrove.

Poaching approaching?

Saying it’s “gonna really get ugly,” McGraw expressed concern Tuesday over the fact that the NCAA is moving toward allowing all Division I athletes to transfer once during their college careers without having to sit out a year.

The proposed rule change has gained recent steam, could pass as soon as next month and could go into effect before next season.

“I think people will be poaching from each other during the season,” McGraw said. “I think it’s gonna really get ugly.”

Currently, athletes typically have to sit out a year when transferring, though the NCAA already makes exceptions on a regular basis.

“I think it’s a really bad idea,” McGraw said of allowing immediate eligibility regardless of circumstance. “I think coaches were unanimously opposed in men’s and women’s basketball and football. All our coaches were opposed to it.”

McGraw has seen several players transfer from her program over the years, including two after last season in Jordan Nixon (Texas A&M) and Danielle Patterson (Indiana) — each sitting out this season — and two others currently starting for ranked teams in Erin Boley (Oregon) and Ali Patberg (Indiana).

McGraw never took in a transfer until 2017, when Jessica Shepard and Lili Thompson arrived, and has since added two more in current starters Marta Sniezek and Destinee Walker.

The coach said relaxing the rules could lead to a vicious cycle.

“I think the problem is then you start to over-recruit,” McGraw said, “so you bring in more kids than you usually do, which is gonna make them want to leave more because they’re not playing, so you can’t really win. If you only have 11 or 12 and a couple leave, then you’re down on numbers, so I think it’s a really bad thing.”

Women’s basketball programs are allowed to have as many as 15 players on scholarship at a time (men are at 13), but McGraw has historically chosen to go with 10 to 11, citing a desire to carry only players who are genuinely in the mix for playing time.

An increase in injuries the last few years, however, has led her to consider expanding that count.

Even if the new NCAA rule passes, though, “12 or 13’s probably the limit we go to,” McGraw said.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw calls a play during the team's home game against Virginia Tech on Feb. 20.

WHO: No. 10 seed Notre Dame (13-17, 8-10) vs. No. 15 Pittsburgh (4-25, 1-17) in ACC Tourney first round.

WHERE: Greensboro Coliseum (21,021), Greensboro, N.C.

WHEN: Wednesday, 3:30 p.m.


RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).


NOTING: If the 10th-seeded Irish beat 15th-seeded Pittsburgh, they face No. 7 seed Georgia Tech (19-10, 10-8) in a 6 p.m. second-round game Thursday on RSN. ND downed the host Yellow Jackets 59-51 four weeks ago. The winner of Thursday’s game goes against second-seeded, No. 10-ranked double-bye team North Carolina State (25-4, 14-4) in a 6 p.m. quarterfinal Friday on RSN. The Wolfpack handed the host Irish their most lopsided loss of the season, 90-56, on Jan. 12. Third-seeded Duke (19-11, 12-6) is also in ND’s half of the bracket. The other half features top-seeded, No. 4-ranked Louisville (27-3, 16-2), which owns 32 and 33-point wins over the Irish this season. Semifinals are at noon and 2:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU (ND would be in the second game) and the championship at noon Sunday on ESPN2. … Pitt’s led by freshman guard Dayshanette Harris (12.1 points per game, 2.6 assists, 1.7 steals). Senior guard Aysia Bugg (12.1 ppg, 43-of-128 on 3s for 33.6%) has not played since suffering a knee injury Feb. 1 against Florida State. The Panthers’ current streak of nine losses began on that date and all have come by at least 11 points. Bugg’s listed as “week to week” in Pitt’s pregame notes. … Junior guard Gabbie Green is averaging 9.4 points for the Panthers. Amber Brown is at 8.9 points and 7.9 rebounds, while fellow freshman Rita Igbokwe is at 4.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 19.3 minutes. Brown and Igbokwe are the No. 3 freshman rebounding pair in the country. … Irish leaders include Destinee Walker (14.5 ppg); Sam Brunelle (14.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg), who has hit 23-of-53 on 3-pointers over her last eight games, including 7-of-11 Sunday at Florida State; Katlyn Gilbert (13.4 ppg, 1.9 spg); Mikki Vaughn (10.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg; 59.2% field goals); and Marta Sniezek (4.7 ppg, 5.8 apg, 1.8 spg), who was “just tremendous … could not have played better,” per coach Muffet McGraw, while leading ND down the stretch of its 70-67 win over the No. 19 Seminoles. … The Irish and Pittsburgh meet for the third time this season. ND won 60-52 at Pitt on Jan. 2 and 74-52 at home on Feb. 9.

QUOTING: “I’m just being me and I’ve always been me. I think having a positive outlook on everything just makes things a lot better … so just trying to keep the energy and bring it to the team, because we need it right now.” — Sam Brunelle, ND freshman, on how she’s maintained outwardly unwavering optimism during a trying season.