<
>

Notre Dame ready to take the next step and win another national title

play
The terrific Turner (1:01)

Notre Dame players talk about the awesome basketball skills of forward Brianna Turner. (1:01)

They are a powerhouse in women's basketball so dominant that they've only dropped seven games in five years. The players' names change, but here's what stays the same at Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish frustrate opponent after opponent behind an offense that shares more freely than the busiest Facebook user.

But despite seven trips to the Final Four, they have only won one national championship, and that was 15 years ago, something Notre Dame (33-1) intends to change during this NCAA tournament. The No. 1 seed in the Lexington Region meets fourth-seeded Stanford (26-7) in the Sweet 16 on Friday (ESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET).

"Getting to the Final Four is obviously great," senior guard Hannah Huffman said. "What's really important is winning the national championship, and we haven't been able to do that in a really long time. That's the standard we set for ourselves."

A team with the credentials of this one deserves all the hype, and though the Irish aren't exactly Notre who?, it's easy to overlook their accomplishments in a sport UConn monopolizes. Women's basketball is often referred to as "UConn and everybody else," but "UConn and then Notre Dame and then everybody else" might be more appropriate.

The Irish are that consistent. Remove the Huskies from the equation, and Notre Dame would be touting a 55-game winning streak. The last Irish loss to a team not coached by Geno Auriemma dates to Jan. 8, 2015, at Miami. Baylor is the only other team to beat Notre Dame in the past five years.

The Irish and Huskies have met in the national championship game the past two seasons. In 2015, UConn won 63-53. In 2014, the Huskies capped a 40-0 season with a 79-58 victory over the Irish, who had lost senior starter Natalie Achonwa to a torn ACL in the regional final.

This season UConn got the better of Notre Dame again, but the Irish didn't have starter Brianna Turner (out with a bum shoulder) and trailed by five late in the game. The 10-point loss at UConn was the closest an opponent has come to the Huskies this season (Maryland also lost to them by 10).

While the major storyline of the national tournament centers on the potential for UConn's Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck to become the first women's players to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, the Irish plan to throw in a plot twist, especially given the return of 6-3 forward Turner, the ACC player and defensive player of the year.

"I always expect big things from this group, and they never disappoint," said Muffet McGraw, one of four finalists for Naismith Coach of the Year, an accolade she has won three times.

Yet it was certainly reasonable to project some growing pains for the Irish this season. Last spring brought the surprising news that All-America point guard and 2014-15 espnW national player of the year Jewell Loyd would not return for her final year of eligibility, opting to turn pro instead.

The decision came the night after the Irish fell to the Huskies in the national championship, and McGraw admittedly was taken aback.

"Absolutely," she said. "You don't lose a player who's drafted No. 1 and not pause for a moment."

And there were other setbacks in addition to Turner's injury. Freshman Ali Patberg, whom McGraw had expected to alleviate some of Lindsay Allen's minutes as Notre Dame's backup point guard, suffered a torn ACL prior to the season. Junior captain Taya Reimer, who started 34 games in 2014-15, announced on Dec. 12 she was leaving the team to attend to personal issues.

But the Irish didn't miss a beat. Instead of excuses, McGraw saw possibility all over the floor.

"Getting to the Final Four is obviously great. What's really important is winning the national championship and we haven't been able to do that in a really long time. That's the standard we set for ourselves."

Notre Dame's Hannah Huffman

"I wish I wasn't coaching against such a great coach on the other end because, boy, can she run a play for a player to score when they need it, and it's unbelievable," said Miami coach Katie Meier after her team lost to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament semifinals. "She's in the Hall of Fame for a reason. Any time we took the lead or they were on the ropes or whatever, they hit a big shot, and it was a different kid each time. That's why they're great."

Madison Cable, who had only made nine starts in her three previous years, is one of those kids. The graduate student opted to return for a fifth year and transitioned from role player to ACC tournament MVP and the nation's third-most reliable 3-pointer shooter.

"She's as good a shooter as there is in college basketball," Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said after Cable erupted for 25 points that included a key 3-pointer and two clutch free throws to secure a 75-72 Irish win in December.

Allen, the ACC assists leader, is often the playmaker, whether she's scoring or distributing. Against North Carolina A&T in the NCAA tournament's first round, the junior guard did not attempt a shot but rang up 10 assists. In the second-round victory over Indiana, Allen scored a season-high 22.

"Whatever Lindsay says, we all listen, no matter what," Cable said. "She could say the craziest thing, and we would literally listen. In the locker room we have a joke. We call her the GOAT, which is the greatest of all time."

Two more who have made a difference: freshmen Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey. Both insist no part of the Notre Dame system is as daunting as their hardest class -- for Ogunbowale that's statistics, and for Mabrey, philosophy. They were stumped when asked to come up with an example of their freshman mistakes.

"Not watching the game from the sidelines," chided Huffman as their teammates were happy to remind them of the early miscues. McGraw noted their short memories had benefits, but quickly added, "They're both fearless."

Both average double-figure scoring off the bench. Mabrey is also second on the team in steals. (She and older sister, Michaela, are two of the three Fighting Irish to shoot 39.5 percent or better from beyond the arc).

McGraw credits persnickety recruiting to creating the brand of teamwork many teams crave. She's choosy about who gets to wear an Irish jersey; asking loads of questions is part of her process. Stats and tapes are nice, "but we never base an offer just on seeing someone play."

"I want to get to know them. I want to get to know the family," she said. "Team chemistry is the most important thing to me. It's all about team. If the kids don't buy into it, I don't want them here. I want to be around people that I like coaching for four years."

Their on-court synergy manifests itself best through the team's assist totals.

Against the Aggies, the Irish's 29 assists on 34 baskets produced a clean, efficient effort that defines Notre Dame basketball. Four players average in double figures; two others are 8.0 points per game or better. The bench averages nearly 30 points.

Another stellar season sets up Cable, Huffman and Michaela Mabrey to surpass last year's senior class as the most successful in school history. Earning another berth to the Final Four would make the Irish 143-7; no Notre Dame class has won 144 games.

They are also the three players on the roster who remember what it's like to beat UConn, having done so three times in 2012-13.

But the bottom line remains that elusive one more win in the biggest game of the season. While McGraw promised herself she would enjoy the journey more this season, the posture of this team is indicative of one on a mission. While colorful confetti rained down on them after they defeated Syracuse to win their third straight ACC championship, the Irish went through the handshake line with business-like precision.

"We had won that three times in a row, so it's expected," Ogunbowale said. "We've gotten [to the Final Four] five straight years. We don't want to be the ones to mess up that streak, so we're going to give it everything we have."

While McGraw doesn't want it to be a "national championship or bust" kind of year, her players have gone about the routine of the season with that vision.

"When you lose someone as talented as Jewell and you weren't expecting it, it's going to keep you off balance," Huffman said. "But after the initial 'Oh crap,' we were fine. After the initial shock went away, there wasn't a doubt in my mind what this team was capable of. And that's a national championship."