April 6, 2015
Leadership doesn't just happen in the University of Notre Dame women's basketball program.
Fighting Irish head coach Muffet McGraw recruits players who already have the character and strength to be leaders.
McGraw and her staff and the resources at Notre Dame then help student-athletes forge their leadership skills.
In the case of the Notre Dame women's basketball team in 2015, it's a fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Final Four and a berth in the national championship game for the fourth time in fifth seasons.
Championship seasons require leaders with voice and vision.
This season, the Fighting Irish women's basketball team lost more than 40 percent of its scoring from a year ago, but more critically the Irish lost key senior leaders Natalie Achonwa, Ariel Braker and Kayla McBride.
When Notre Dame (36-2) steps onto the court at Tampa's Amalie Arena to take on Connecticut (37-1) for the national championship Tuesday night, the way McGraw was able to grow leadership and the way her players embraced the challenge has a lot to do with putting the Fighting Irish in a position to potentially reach college basketball's mountaintop.
"Coming from where we were in October, looking absolutely awful in practice, I'm so proud of how far we've come," Irish junior Michaela Mabrey said of how the Irish have progressed this season.
Considered a team that maybe was a year away, McGraw developed the Irish of 2014-15 into a national championship contender.
"I think we've had two big areas of growth," McGraw said. "The first would be in our leadership. I think Jewell (Loyd) has really done a great job of taking over a lot of the leadership. And I think Lindsay Allen has really grown as a point guard who is much more vocal this year than she was in the past. She's really done a good job of talking to the team. And I think Jewell has taken the time, when we needed somebody to kind of rally us, she's gotten them all together.
"I think the second area is Taya (Reimer) and her leadership with the posts. She's become a mentor to the posts. She's only a sophomore and we're expecting so much from her. And she just continues to deliver. She's been our steadiest player all year long, and I think it's because of her that our whole post game has really improved."
McGraw saw her team turn losses against Connecticut and Miami into chances to improve. Notre Dame finished the Atlantic Coast Conference on a roll to claim the regular-season title and then prepped for the NCAA Championship by sweeping through the ACC Tournament.
"This season is definitely different," McGraw said. "I think when we started the year and looked at what we lost, we were wondering where all the offense is going to come from. To say that we've come a long way I think is a little bit of an understatement.
"I'm just proud of where we've gotten to and how this team has just been resilient and continued to pursue its goals this year."
McGraw started the leadership development by sending a number of players, including All-America guard Jewell Loyd, to the Rosenthal Leadership Academy that the University offers.
"Rosenthal is basically like a retreat," Loyd said. "You go out with a bunch of other student-athletes. You work on team bonding. You tell your stories. You work on a lot of teamwork-themed activities, being a good listener--and then you bring those skills back to Notre Dame. That's a pretty big thing that we do at Notre Dame."
Loyd said she also has benefited from having mentors like Skylar Diggins, Devereaux Peters and Natalie Achonwa. Watching the leaders before her guide the Irish to national championship appearances made a mark on Loyd's leadership style.
When Notre Dame struggled to find its identity, Loyd knew where a leader needed to be a strong voice.
"I think the two main areas we worked on all year were chemistry and communication," Loyd said. "We have a younger team. It's hard for them to talk, to ask questions, to voice their opinion. After a while, I would say, 'It's OK. I'm going to listen to you.' When people understand that, they feel comfortable talking and they start to learn. That was a big problem early in the year. We didn't talk. Communication wasn't great. We didn't trust each other. Now, we have great camaraderie."
Reimer, a sophomore, had to take on a leadership role sooner than most players, because the other two players in the rotation are freshmen--Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld.
"Coach (McGraw) definitely did kind of want me to be in that leadership role even before the season began and kind of talked to me about that," Reimer said. "It's something that I struggled with at the beginning of the season. She wanted me to be more vocal on the court and more vocal with Bri (Brianna Turner) and Kathryn (Westbeld), just helping them out with where they should be and talking to them more about things that they should be doing.
"I think kind of around January, that's when it clicked for me. It came about with more confidence that I gained in myself in the way I was playing. It kind of helped me to be able to direct them more."
Reimer has seen dramatic improvement in the Irish from the beginning of the season, and she attributes leadership from McGraw, the assistant coaches and her teammates.
"It's night and day," Reimer said of the Irish early in the season and the Irish now. "We are such a different team. Everybody has grown since then. We've become more of a team, I think. At this point of the season, we have so many different weapons, so many people that can do so many different things. Obviously, it helps having Bri (Brianna Turner), so that's going to be a lot different. We are different team, but they (Connecticut) are a different team, too. They've grown. It's going to be a battle.
"Our season has just been a period of growth. Our entire team is continuing to grow every practice, every game. I think that with us being so young and especially with Bri (Brianna Turner) and Kathryn (Westbeld) being freshmen, it's hard to transition into the college game. I think we've just all learned to play together so well. The coaches have pushed us hard and have done a great job with giving us those opportunities to grow. It's just been constant work. I am just really proud of the way that, especially with those two being freshmen, they've progressed. They're peaking at the perfect time."
Reimer credited two senior posts from last season with showing her how to be a leader. She said Achonwa and Braker were leaders who weren't afraid to say the unpopular thing. When Reimer had to take on leadership as a sophomore, she responded.
"I was kind of forced to grow up, and I think I really tried to embrace that role," Reimer said. Even though I'm still really young, just being able to use those experiences and help them out, Bri and Kathryn, it's just something I've had to do for the betterment of the team. And I'm just happy I can help them out any way I can."
Not many individuals who don't wear Notre Dame colors are giving the Fighting Irish a chance against two-time defending national champion Connecticut, and that's all right with McGraw.
"I love being the underdog . . . always have," McGraw said. "I think it's a great position to be in. The pressure is not on us--it's on UConn. We can go out, relax and play our game. Nobody expects us to win, nobody's picked us to win. So we can really have a very loose attitude going into the game in terms of being relaxed."
Notre Dame is in its fifth consecutive NCAA Final Four, and Connecticut is making its making its eighth consecutive trip to the Final Four.
McGraw thinks offense has a lot to do with the success of the Irish and Huskies.
"I think offensively we both generally are first and second in the country in field-goal percentage," McGraw said." I think shot selection is a big factor with both of our teams.
"The shots we get are the shots we get all year long, so the same people are taking the same shots in every game. So I think for us this team (Connecticut) is a lot about offense. Because I don't know that you can stop them. I think they're going to score. And so the question is can you keep up with them by scoring as much."
Much of Notre Dame's offensive efficiency goes back to the implementation of the Princeton offense.
Legendary coach Pete Carril started the Princeton offense, a precise system that uses intelligent decisions, constant motion and lots of back-door cuts.
McGraw reached out to a number of coaches to learn as much as she could about the system.
"One of my former players, Liz Feeley, was the women's coach (at Princeton) at the time," McGraw said. "So she did a lot of the work for me. We went up to Northwestern and Bill Carmody was an assistant with Pete Carril, so we watched his practice and talked to him a lot. UC Davis runs it. I sent my assistants out to different places. Went out to Air Force when Coach (Joe) Scott was out there.
"We've been to a lot of places to see people, and it constantly evolves because we have different players. This year we're still evolving. I don't think we've run it nearly as well as we have in the past. Natalie Achonwa was really special in that. We put our own wrinkles in to fit our team. That's what I like the most about offense, tinkering with it and changing it up to see what fits us."
When Notre Dame was a member of the BIG EAST Conference, there were seasons when the Irish and Huskies would tangle four times in one year. The Irish also enjoyed a recent run of seven wins in nine meetings against the Huskies.
Irish guard Michaela Mabrey said seeing the UConn name on the uniform Tuesday night won't be intimidating.
"I think other teams lose right away, before the game starts, because they're intimidated by the UConn logo," Mabrey said. "We've played them so many times that the intimidation factor has nothing on us. But they are such a great team, we have to do everything in our power to try and stop them. They're going to make their runs, they're going to make their shots. We just have to find ways to counteract them."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent