- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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DENVER -- Muffet McGraw and guard Brittany Mallory sat at the Ruth's Chris Steak House near South Bend, Ind.
The Notre Dame coach was waiting on pins and needles for Mallory to tell her what she had decided.
Mallory had taken a couple of weeks after Notre Dame's loss to Texas A&M in the national championship game to think about whether she wanted to return for a fifth season. Her body was sore and more than little beaten up. She needed surgery on her wrist.
She was also about to graduate from Notre Dame with a degree in management and entrepreneurship. And, her best friend on the team, Becca Bruszewski, was moving on. In a January talk with McGraw, Mallory said she might be ready to do the same.
Mallory heard from her teammates, McGraw and her family. But it wasn't until she talked to her older brother Bobby, the one who bloodied her nose playing pickup basketball in the driveway, that she found some clarity.
"He talked me into coming back," Brittany Mallory said. "He told me, 'You don't want to leave knowing you had another year. See how special this team is, see how far they can go. You don't want to regret anything.'"
When Mallory told McGraw of her decision to return at the dinner table that night, the coach screamed.
"When we sat down it was like, 'Put me out of my misery, please,'" McGraw said. "That was a very happy moment for me."
In fact, Mallory's decision to return is the reason the Irish are playing for the national championship again, this time against Baylor (8:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, ESPN), McGraw said Monday.
"I don't think we would be here without her," McGraw said. "I thought she was essential to this team because of all of the intangible things she gives us."
Mallory is the team's defensive stopper, assigned to the opposition's best perimeter player. She is all hustle and heart and came up huge in Sunday night's semifinal against Connecticut, scoring seven of her 11 points in overtime -- including a pair of 3-pointers. She also finished with four rebounds, five assists and four steals.
But it's more than what she contributes to the box score. Mallory, a 5-foot-10 guard, has played more games at Notre Dame than any other woman in program history.
She is, as Natalie Novosel put it, "the team mom." Although on the days when she's moving a little more slowly, they call her "grandma."
"We know how important Brittany is to our team," Novosel said. "The calming factor, the poise. She is the smartest player Coach McGraw has ever coached, she'll say that. She's one of my best friends, and I really wanted her to come back because I knew how important she was to this team."
After Mallory's dinner-table decision, McGraw told her to take some time away. Take the summer off. No classes, no workouts. Let her body and her mind rest.
Mallory took her up on that. She took an internship at Under Armour, the athletic apparel company based in her hometown of Baltimore.
She flew back to South Bend and had surgery on her injured wrist. She rejuvenated.
"I think it was still hard," McGraw said. "I think she came back thinking, 'I hope I made the right decision.'"
Mallory admitted it was tough.
"The first couple of weeks, conditioning was really hard because I wasn't there over the summer," Mallory said. "It was a tough transition back, running and doing everything. But it was worth it, and I'm glad I did it."
Mallory started 38 games, finishing second in minutes behind only point guard Skylar Diggins. She ranks second on the team with 38 3-pointers and averages 5.9 points and 2.6 rebounds.
Yet at the end of another season, the fact that she's battling injuries to get to the end is clear. As she hopped onto the platform at Monday's news conference, she did so gingerly.
"The fifth-year aches and soreness, you know?" Mallory said. "I've had a lot of little small injuries, pulled muscles. It's been a fight."
But she'll muster up for one more game.
"It's a great feeling," Mallory said. "We, the seniors and the whole team really, just wanted to get back here. We had this chance last year, and we came up short. We are looking forward to the chance to get that back."