April 3, 2018
By John Heisler
After the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team watched for the second time in three nights as Arike Ogunbowale swished yet another game-winning jump shot, most of the attention deservedly shone on Hall of Fame Irish coach Muffet McGraw and her staff, Ogunbowale and her Irish teammates as they hoisted the trophy for winning the 2018 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship.
Yet a closer look Sunday night revealed an excited group of some 25 young women who massed just behind the official NCAA platform on which McGraw and her team were being honored.
And, boy, were they noisy.
Many fans remaining in the Nationwide Arena stands may have wondered just who these people were who somehow had gained access to the playing floor inside the ropes of the security detail.
Truth be told, these were all former Notre Dame women’s basketball players who had come to Columbus to cheer on McGraw and her 2017-18 team.
And, boy, did they cheer. And, boy, were they excited.
They yelled and screamed and shrieked and celebrated—and when the on-the-court portion of the postgame event ended many of them took it into the Irish locker room where the real dancing began. These were scenes tailor-made for cell phones and social media videos.
The former Irish enjoyed themselves so much that McGraw jumped down and joined their party for a while after NCAA president Mark Emmert made the first of multiple trophy presentations.
Many later made their way back to the Sheraton in downtown Columbus where the Irish squad and staff had headquartered for the week—and where the celebration continued well into the evening.
“It was pretty cool because there were so many decades represented, from Karen (Robinson) Keyes to Ruth Riley and her group, and then everybody else in between,” says former Irish point guard Megan Duffy.
Maybe there was a bit of pent-up enthusiasm after the Irish, following their 2001 national title, had gone back to Final Fours in five straight years (2011-15) and come home empty-handed.
But more likely it’s because of how passionate this group feels about the Notre Dame program and its former head coach.
By all accounts it was a larger-than-usual group of former Irish—including former point guard Lindsay Allen (Notre Dame captain in 2015-16 and 2016-17) who flew in from Russia where her professional season with Dynamo Moscow is ongoing.
“It was amazing—just the pure joy of everybody there,” said Duffy. “It was like we were all back out there playing with Coach McGraw. And she was on cloud nine.”
Former All-American Kayla McBride tweeted this not long after the game ended Sunday: “Coach just proved again why she’s the greatest coach in the country. Every single one of those girls did that FOR her. Because she believed in them THAT much. That was some special stuff right there. #ProudAlum”
Fortunately, these former Irish had some locals to serve as tour guides and chauffeurs.
Former Irish player Letitia Bowen is married to former Notre Dame assistant coach Kevin McGuff, who just completed his fifth season as head coach of the Ohio State women’s team. Ohio State served as the host institution for the Final Four.
One member of McGuff’s staff is Ericka Haney, who played on the 2001 Notre Dame NCAA title team and now serves as the Buckeyes’ special assistant to the head coach.
Further down the road is Duffy (Irish captain in 2004-05 and 2005-06) who finished her first year as head coach at Miami (Ohio) in 2017-18. One of Duffy’s assistants is Michaela Mabrey, who played for the Irish a few years back and whose sister Marina is a junior on the current Notre Dame team.
There are another dozen former Irish players in the coaching profession, not to mention former Irish assistant coaches. One of those who was first to greet McGraw as she left the floor Sunday night was current Wisconsin coach Jonathan Tsipis who coached with McGraw and the Irish from 2003-12.
Riley, the Final Four MVP of that 2001 Notre Dame championship squad, came to Columbus along with plenty of her teammates. Riley, recently married and living in Edinburgh, Scotland, is now an international consultant for the NBA (her official title is NBA Academy Global Technical Director-Women’s Programs).
McGraw was quick to note the presence of so many former players:
“There have been so many great teams and so many players here with us celebrating in the locker room just now, all the former players. We talked about how we've done it for all of them that weren't able to finish the job.
“It was great to see so many of our alums and how happy they were for us. They couldn't be happier for this team, for what they've accomplished, for the whole program, for the coaching staff. We are a family, and it's great to have them back.”
Those former players and coaches represent loyal by-products of what she and the Notre Dame women’s program have built.
“I think we've established a great culture,” McGraw said after the game
Sunday night. “Starting in 2011, when we were able to get back to the Final
Four for the first time in 10 years, I think the culture has just
perpetuated itself, starting with the seniors and how they address the
team, how they indoctrinate the freshmen into our culture and the work
ethic. I think that's what really separates the good teams.
“In 2011 Skylar (Diggins) kind of led us, and we had a really good team.
Then she graduated, and we thought, ‘Now what's going to happen next?’ Then
Kayla McBride brought us back, and then Natalie Achonwa brought us back. It
has been fun doing it with different teams and knowing that the culture is
going to continue.”
McGraw also understands that nothing is promised in her business. Her 2017-18 squad’s success accentuated that—as the Irish persevered after a slew of injuries that might have brought another roster to its knees.
“There are no guarantees,” she said. “We’re bringing back some good players (including starters Ogunbowale, Mabrey, Jess Shepard and Jackie Young). We're getting some good players (four incoming freshmen for 2018-19). We're returning some good players (notably Brianna Turner and Mikayla Vaughn, out all or most of 2017-18 with injury).
“But the ball bounces in a funny way sometimes. You have to take advantage of your opportunities, and that's why I'm so thankful we were able to finish this one.”
With McGraw absolutely interested in building on that culture, she and recruiting coordinator Niele Ivey received a helpful assist via live televised remarks from Notre Dame’s star guard:
“Coach McGraw recruits players like this,” said Ogunbowale, who had received more than 100 media requests for interviews by the time the team arrived back on campus.
“If anyone is thinking what school to go to, go to Notre Dame. This is what we do. National champs right here.”
Apparently there will be no shortage of volunteers to plan the next celebration.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been following the Irish sports scene since 1978.