March 17, 2015
Niele Ivey, now an assistant coach for the University of Notre Dame women's basketball team, remembers her first NCAA women's basketball tournament selection watch party. It was 1997, a year the Fighting Irish would advance to their first NCAA Final Four. The party took place at the home of Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw.
"It was very intimate," Ivey recalled. "It was a family atmosphere. It was so much fun. It's amazing how the program has grown, when I look back on those times. The only people who came when it was at Coach McGraw's house were her best friends, some family, and the players and coaches and Coach McGraw's family.
"The players were all piled on top of one another in the living room. The leprechaun came over. It was so crowded that a bunch of people had to stand in the kitchen and watch the selections from there."
Ivey loved every minute of it.
Notre Dame's watch parties now are at Purcell Pavilion, held in Club Naimoli overlooking the court where the Irish have had such magical moments in their storied history.
The nights are still special for Ivey.
"Every morning of the selection show, I feel the same way," Ivey said. "It's like the first time. You never know where your destination will be, who you're playing. Every year I'm part of the Notre Dame family and the NCAA tournament tradition, I feel so blessed. I savor every moment."
Notre Dame, earning a No. 1 seed, will begin its 2014-2015 quest for a national championship on the Purcell Pavilion court. The Fighting Irish, 31-2 and champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference, earned a No. 1 seed. The Irish take on No. 16 Montana (24-8) at 7:30 p.m. EDT Friday night. No. 8 seed Minnesota (23-9) plays No. 9 seed DePaul (26-7) at 5 p.m. EDT Friday. The winners return to Purcell Pavilion at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday to play for a berth in the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City.
McGraw said she always has wanted a watch party that led to the memories of a lifetime for her players.
"I loved having it at my house, but we couldn't invite very many people," McGraw said.
Moving the event to Club Naimoli five years ago allowed McGraw to invite people she considers essential to the Irish program.
"It's so nice to be able to include everybody who helps us during the year, and there are so many people, the staff, the people in the Joyce Center, the ushers, the scorer's table ... it's nice for us to be able to celebrate with them," McGraw said. "It's been really nice that we could have this reward for them, for all they do for us."
Irish senior Madison Cable celebrated her fourth watch party, and she still loves the moment when the team gathers around a large screen television to wait for the announcement.
"It's still really exciting," Cable said of Selection Monday. "Everybody has fun the whole night. It's exciting to find out who we're going to play, where we're going to play, and to get started with the tournament. It's nice that everybody gets to be a part of this moment. Everybody has worked so hard to make this year exciting and fun and successful. I'll always remember these moments, spending time with my teammates, watching the selections and making jokes with my teammates."
Freshman Brianna Turner marveled at her first watch party.
"Just seeing Notre Dame a No. 1 seed, that was awesome," Turner said. "Being surrounded by people who support us, my teammates and that coaches, that's what has made this such a special night. It's like family. I'm soaking in every moment. I think it's great that we have the opportunity to spend this night with fans and with some of the players' families.
"I love the family atmosphere here," Turner said. "I think the family atmosphere plays a role in attracting recruits. It's great knowing you always have support, that someone always has your back."
Another freshman, Kathryn Westbeld, also savored her first Notre Dame women's basketball watch party.
"This is so exciting to finally be here," Westbeld said. "I've watched it on TV and you see the teams celebrate, but being here and we get a No. 1 seed, it's so special to be part of this. I had no idea the watch party was going to have so many people here. It means so much to have the fans and volunteers here to celebrate the selection with us."
McGraw loves the magic of Selection Monday.
"It's really a special day," McGraw said. "You remember everything about the tournament, from painting your nails green, from where we had to go, and who we had to beat. The girls will remember everything about this."
Now that the Irish know their path in the NCAA Championship, McGraw and the players are hoping for two more special nights this season at Purcell Pavilion.
"I think the first game is always the toughest game," McGraw said. "For us to be starting at home in front of our fans - we hope we have a sellout - is really important for us to get off to a good start.
"We really need our crowd. They just know exactly when we need them to stand up and cheer because we haven't scored for a while or when we need a defensive stop. They're such an intelligent crowd, and they are a big key for us."
McGraw is hoping the Irish fans will help her club make more special memories.
"I think this team is capable of anything," McGraw said. "I think we showed this year what our potential could be. We still haven't painted our masterpiece. I'm waiting for that game when we play and it's the best that we've ever played. We're starting to get there, and you can see that it's coming."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent