A look back: What made Muffet McGraw a national champ? You just had to watch her work.

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Editor's note: This column was first published in April 2018, after the Notre Dame women's basketball team won a national championship

Chaos commenced and a crushing collapse seemed certain.

When it was time for a Hall of Fame coach to do what a Hall of Fame coach does, Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw did.

The Irish followed her lead.

Before Arike Ogunbowale shot Notre Dame to its second national championship with a crazy degree-of-difficulty, contested 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the final game against Mississippi State on Easter Sunday night, before Ogunbowale clubbed Connecticut with the first of her two improbable buzzer beaters, it looked like the Irish would be sent home earlier than anyone had hoped.

Notre Dame let a five-point lead with 21.4 seconds remaining against Connecticut disappear like that. Poof! Mere minutes after a premature sideline celebration at the thought of beating the previously-unbeaten Huskies, the bench fell silent, those happy faces suddenly ashen.

That’s when McGraw went to work.

With Nationwide Arena up for grabs — 20,000 fans on their feet, both bands playing, everyone wondering what overtime might offer — McGraw stayed steady. Stayed focused. Stayed sure of herself. Of her team. Of her program.

Totally in the moment. Totally absorbed in three minutes that set the stage for something special.

Knowing McGraw, her insides likely were screaming for antacid in ways only head coaches know. So close to victory, but still so far. But she never let on to her staff, to her players, to anyone watching her every move. Her actions said it all.

We’ve got this.

Seated behind the Notre Dame bench, it was fascinating to watch McGraw work as she picked up the pieces of regulation and prepared for high-stakes overtime in the national semifinal. She did so with the presence of a doctor in the operating room, a lawyer in the courtroom, a chief executive officer in the boardroom.

Every movement mattered. No words wasted. She knew what she wanted to say. Then said it. Knew what she wanted to do. Then did it.

Nobody else spoke, and nobody could sit still. Team mangers delivered shots of blue Powerade — served, of course in the mandated NCAA blue cups — to the five starters seated around McGraw. Irish reserves shifted nervously back and forth in place, half paying attention to the huddle, half looking around in search of some sign all would be all right.

Even McGraw’s husband, Matt, a tight bundle of nervous energy, was on the move. He paced from the Irish fan section a quarter of the way around the big NHL building, to behind the basket and over to the back of the bench, then around again. He couldn’t stand. He couldn’t sit. He just kept moving.

In the middle of the huddle crouched his wife, locked in on the task at hand. Pick up the players who had lost the lead. Get them focused for overtime. Get them to understand that the job, the journey, was nowhere near finished. She went down the line, one by one. Talked to Ogunbowale for a few seconds here, then Marina Mabrey for a few seconds there. Kathryn Westbeld got picked up. Jackie Young was coached up. Finally, it was on to Jessica Shepard as the Nebraska transfer took one more swig of her Powerade, then tossed the empty blue cup over her left shoulder for a manager to dispose of.

She nodded. They nodded. Huddled one more time. Hands in the middle. Back to work. Back to win.

The horn sounded. Overtime. Five more minutes would bring either one of the biggest victories in program history or a ticket back to South Bend for the rest of Easter weekend. There was nothing more that McGraw could say to her players. It was in their hands. She had done all she could to get them there; it was up to them to bring it home.

All she could do was watch.

Less than 48 hours later, McGraw stood still soaked from the celebratory dump of a bucket of water over her and her new black dress. Her hair still was damp. But national championship No. 2 was secure. It sent McGraw into a select stratosphere of college coaches who have won multiple titles. Getting one is great; getting another means a forever place on the Mount Rushmore of women’s college coaches who also are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

McGraw is there alongside Geno Auriemma (11) and Pat Summit (8), Leon Barmore (2) and Tara VanDerveer (2). That’s it. That’s the list. The club of coaching clubs. The Fab Five. Rushmore.

None of them went 17 seasons between titles like McGraw did. The Irish won it in 2001 and kept coming back, kept competing, kept challenging until they did it again.

She delivered. She stands alone.


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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw calls out to one of her players during the NCAA Women’s Tournament National Championship game against Mississippi State at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)