Plenty to choose from when picking the best Notre Dame women's basketball teams

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, center, holds up the National Championship trophy after Notre Dame defeated Purdue, 68-66, to win the 2001 national championship. At left is Imani Dunbar and Ruth Riley is at right.

SOUTH BEND — The challenge of choosing the top 10 Notre Dame women’s basketball teams of all-time isn’t coming up with 10, but paring down to 10.

The Irish, after all, have cranked out several clubs that aren’t on the list you’ll see here, yet are clubs that would comfortably rank as the No. 1 team all-time for most Division I programs. It’s also nearly impossible to put ND’s 10 best teams in a precise order given the elite stature of each and the often overlapping personnel.

Thus the list that follows will be chronological. Still, which is Notre Dame’s all-time No. 1 club? Even the architect of all these powerhouses flinches on that one.

“That’s an interesting question,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Friday.

Her ensuing thoughts deliver crystallization, yet at the same time sprinkle in flecks of gray.

“You have to look at those two teams,” McGraw said of the 2001 and 2018 clubs that own ND’s two national titles.

“It’s funny, I was just watching highlights of 2001 for a podcast somebody’s doing on that team and I was thinking Ruth (Riley) is definitely the best center we’ve ever had,” McGraw said. “That girl was unstoppable.”

Toss in an All-American senior point guard in Niele Ivey, and the player who remains the most precise 3-point shooter in Division I history in Alicia Ratay, and those Irish were wicked good.

Nevertheless, “I think you have to go 2018” over 2001, McGraw declared.

“When you have five that get drafted to the WNBA in the same draft,” she continued, “that’s pretty hard to beat.”

The only twist is that it’s not actually 2018 that boasts that distinction. It’s 2019, and therein lie some of those gray flecks.

More on 2018 and 2019 below, but onward to the rest of the top 10, with apologies for the can’t-be-helped choices of nine straight clubs from 2011 to 2019.

2001: 34-2, National Champions

At a minimum, these Irish are the runaway best team over the program’s first 33 years, and can certainly state a case as best overall.

Riley averaged 18.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and shot 63% from the field on her way to national player of the year honors. Fellow senior Ivey checked in at 12.1 points and 6.9 assists. Ratay (12.9 ppg) made 81-of-148 on 3-pointers for 54.7%, still the NCAA’s best-ever figure by a sophomore. Kelly Siemon and Ericka Haney averaged a combined 22.3 points and 12.8 rebounds.

This is the Irish team that most genuinely flirted with perfection as well, its lone two losses being 54-53 at Rutgers (after already beating the Knights by 21) and 78-76 in the Big East Tourney final against host UConn.

No. 2-ranked Notre Dame rip-roaringly avenged that loss with a 90-75 whipping of the No. 1-ranked Huskies in the NCAA Tourney semifinals, then nipped Purdue, 68-66, for the title.

2011: 31-8, National Runner-up 

Notre Dame's Devereaux Peters drives past Texas A&M's Danielle Adams in the National Championship game against Texas A&M. Notre Dame lost to Texas A&M 76-70 in 2011.

These Irish earned the program’s first Final Four trip in a decade, then knocked off top-ranked, 36-1 UConn 72-63 at that Final Four after losing each of three other meetings against the Huskies that season.

While this club closed with twice as many defeats as any other team on this list, half of those came against opponents ranked No. 2 or higher and the other four by a combined 15 points against top-15 squads, including the 76-70 title-game loss to Texas A&M.

McGraw on Friday called this No. 9-ranked group her most underrated team, citing the win over UConn that directly followed a 73-59 victory over top-seed Tennessee in a regional final.

Hometown superstar Skylar Diggins averaged 15.0 points and 4.8 assists in the sophomore campaign of what would be four All-American seasons. Natalie Novosel led ND at 15.1 points.

Fellow junior Big East first-teamer Devereaux Peters finished at 11.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 59% from the field.

2012: 35-4, National Runner-up

Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins drives around Baylor’s Odyssey Sims during the NCAA Women’s Championship game in 2012.

“If they played in almost any other year, I think they would’ve been champs,” McGraw said of her 2012 club.

The problem is they played in the same year that Brittney Griner powered Baylor to a 40-0 record that matches the best in NCAA history. The Bears won their six tourney games by an average of 20.7 points, including, 80-61, over the Irish in the final.

Notre Dame was otherwise overwhelming itself, with an average victory margin on the season of 26.0 that remains a program standard. The Irish closed at 3-1 against UConn, which itself went 29-1 against all others not named Baylor.

Diggins averaged 16.8 points, 5.7 assists and 2.6 steals. Novosel added 15.2 points per game. Peters, a two-time Big East defensive player of the year, was at 11.8 points and 9.3 rebounds, while sophomore Kayla McBride added 11.6 points.

2013: 35-2, Final Four

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa grabs control of the ball in a Final Four game against UConn in 2013.

These Irish compiled the program’s best record to that point, went unbeaten in true road games for the first time and edged UConn in each of the teams’ initial three meetings, but then stumbled 83-65 against the eventual champion Huskies.

It was easily Connecticut’s closest win of a tournament in which it won its other five games by an average of 38 points. ND’s only other loss was an early-season 12-point decision against overall top seed Baylor.

Diggins wrapped up her record-shattering career with senior-year averages of 17.1 points, 6.1 assists and 3.1 steals. McBride added 15.9 points, and fellow junior All-American Natalie Achonwa 13.8 points and 9.5 rebounds. Jewell Loyd arrived with a 12.5 average as a freshman.

2014: 37-1, National Runner-up

Notre Dame's Kayla McBride goes in for a layup during the 2014 Final Four.

The Irish secured their best-ever record, but it was capped by a 79-58 loss to UConn as the top-ranked Huskies matched Baylor in 2012 for the NCAA’s best-ever mark at 40-0.

ND and Connecticut were able to both enter the final unbeaten thanks to taking a one-year hiatus from regular-season meetings by virtue of Notre Dame’s move to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Loyd, McBride and Achonwa each wound up All-Americans. Loyd averaged 18.6 points and 6.5 rebounds. McBride was at 17.6 points and 3.8 assists, and Achonwa 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds. Michaela Mabrey chipped in 72-of-171 outside the arc for 42%, while Lindsay Allen led in assists as a freshman at 3.9.

The Irish punished most teams in their way with an average victory margin of 24.5 that stands second-best in program history.

2015: 36-3, National Runner-up

Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd moves by South Carolina guard Tina Roy during the 2015 Final Four.

Yet another Irish club that likely wins it all in a world minus UConn, Notre Dame instead dropped a second straight No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup against the Huskies in the final, this time 63-53.

Connecticut also took the regular-season encounter, 76-58, as part of a 38-1 season. Loyd — who was named ESPN player of the year, declared a year early for the WNBA draft and was chosen No. 1 overall — led the Irish at 19.8 points per game.

National freshman of the Year Brianna Turner added 13.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 65% from the field. Allen, in the first of three straight seasons that included All-American accord, checked in at 10.4 points and 5.3 assists. Taya Reimer added 10.2 points and 6.1 rebounds.

2016: 33-2, Sweet 16

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner looks for a shot against Indiana in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

Despite long being a target, ND’s string of avoiding a major upset loss in the NCAA Tourney ended at more than a decade when the No. 2-ranked Irish fell 90-84 in a regional semifinal to a No. 13, seven-loss Stanford club.

That doesn’t detract enough from the overall body of work, though, to knock this group from this list. ND’s only other loss was 91-81 at UConn to a Huskie club that wound up 38-0 with another national crown.

Turner collected All-American honors at 14.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 59% shooting. Senior Madison Cable averaged 13.7 points and hit 73-of-155 on 3-pointers for 47%. Allen dished 5.8 assists to go with 9.3 points. Freshman guards Arike Ogunbowale (11.4) and Marina Mabrey (10.7) arrived as immediate double-digit scorers.

2017: 33-4, Elite Eight

Notre Dame’s Marina Mabrey, right, fights for the ball against Duke in the ACC Tournament championship game in 2017.

Oh, what may have been if not for the harshest postseason punch dealt to this program. The No. 2 Irish were sailing with 15 straight victories when Turner suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first half of an 88-82 second-round overtime win over Purdue.

Even without her, ND was good enough to smash No. 11 Ohio State 99-76 in a regional semifinal, but was nipped 76-75 two days later by No. 6 Stanford.

Turner exited averaging 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks to go with 62% from the field. Ogunbowale (15.9 ppg) and Mabrey (14.6) combined for 139-of-337 on 3-pointers for 41%. Allen capped her career with a 7.6 assist average to go with 9.6 points and 2.2 steals.

2018: 35-3, National Champion

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale makes the winning shot against Mississippi State to give the Fighting Irish their second national championship in 2018.

Spiced by Ogunbowale’s unprecedented feat of draining game-winning buzzer beaters in both Final Four games — those shots slaying unbeaten No. 1 UConn and once-beaten No.2 Mississippi State — the Irish overcame Turner missing the entire season and three other players being sidelined by injuries for a remarkable run.

Ogunbowale averaged 20.8 points on her way to All-American honors. Jessica Shepard, an immediately eligible junior transfer from Nebraska, added 15.6 points and 8.1 rebounds. Versatile sophomore Jackie Young closed at 14.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists, while Mabrey contributed 14.4 points and 4.4 dimes. Kat Westbeld, described by McGraw as “the glue,” averaged 7.7 points and 5.6 boards to go with off-the-chart intangibles.

ND entered the season ranked No. 6 and climbed as high as No. 2, but was No. 5 the rest of the way after a stunningly lopsided January loss to Louisville.

2019: 35-4, National Runner-up

The Irish were denied back-to-back titles when No. 1 Baylor’s Chloe Jackson hit a tie-breaking layup at 3.9 seconds to go and Ogunbowale missed the first of two free throws at 1.9 left for an 82-81 Bear victory.

ND entered a season ranked No. 1 for just the second time ever (the other time in 2016-17) and appeared primed for a repeat with four starters back plus Turner in place of Westbeld, although Baylor (37-1) ascended to the overall top seed entering the tourney to Notre Dame’s No. 2.

“Probably, just because we certainly had the talent,” McGraw said Friday of whether that title-game loss was her program’s most disappointing defeat, “and because we really didn’t play well for 30 minutes, but they’re all pretty equally disappointing. It’s probably the only year we were really picked to win.”

The No. 1 scoring team in program history at 88.6 points per outing (and third in margin at 23.7), ND’s parade of potency was led by Ogunbowale (21.8 ppg), Shepard (16.7 ppg, 10.3 rebounds, 59% field goals), Young (14.7 ppg, 7.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists), Turner (14.4 ppg, 7.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 63% field goals) and Mabrey (12.8 ppg, 5.1 assists).

They wound up the NCAA’s highest-scoring career quintet ever to start together, men or women, at 10,230 points. Young, coming out a year early, went No. 1 in the WNBA draft, followed by Ogunbowale (No. 5), Turner (No. 11), Shepard (No. 16) and Mabrey (No. 19).

On the bubble

1997: These pioneering Irish (31-7) — paced by the record-setting duo of Katryna Gaither (20.4 ppg) and Beth Morgan (18.3) — earned ND’s first Final Four appearance by knocking off clubs ranked Nos. 14, 8 and 22 in the AP poll. However, they lost twice to unranked teams during the season and suffered their five losses to rated clubs by an average of 12.2 points.

1999: This group (26-5) — which included Riley, Ivey, Sheila McMillen and Danielle Green — compiled to that point ND’s best record and highest final ranking at No. 8. The Irish collected five wins over ranked teams. Despite being without Ivey in the postseason due to injury, they reached the second round.

2000: Setting the stage for the following season’s national title, these Irish (27-5) rose to as high as No. 5 in the rankings and advanced to the Sweet 16, where they were edged 69-65 by No. 11 Texas Tech.

2005: Led by South Bend-grown fourth-time team MVP Jacqueline Batteast and fellow All-American Megan Duffy, Notre Dame (27-6) surged to No. 3 early in the season. The Irish wound up No. 11 and lost to unranked Arizona State in the NCAA Tourney’s second round.

2010: Steered by senior tri-captains Ashley Barlow, Melissa Lechlitner and Lindsay Schrader, and buoyed by the arrival of Diggins, ND (29-6) was ranked No. 3 much of the season before landing at No. 7. The Irish recorded a pair of lopsided wins to reach the Sweet 16 before falling to Final Four club Oklahoma in overtime.

Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard, right, and Jackie Young, left, celebrate after the Irish defeated Louisville to win the ACC title in 2019.