April 17, 2015
There were plenty of superlatives to celebrate at Tuesday's banquet for the University of Notre Dame women's basketball team.
Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw guided her team to a fifth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Final Four.
Notre Dame stormed to a 36-3 record and captured the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament championships.
But while the Irish celebrated the successes of the 2014-2015 campaign, the determination to have even more reason to celebrate next season owned a commanding presence.
"I think they're anxious to get back at it," McGraw said of her players after the banquet at the Joyce Center Fieldhouse.
McGraw noticed the tone being set by the team as soon as she walked into the Irish locker room after Connecticut beat Notre Dame 63-53 in the national championship match.
"It was great to see them mad after the Connecticut game," McGraw said of her players. "You don't want to see them sad, you want to see them mad. That's a great emotion for them to have."
Much of the Notre Dame banquet focused on how the takeaways from the 2014-2015 season can fuel the Irish fire next season.
"I thought it was pretty amazing how we matured over the year," McGraw said. "The freshmen got better, Taya Reimer made a huge jump in her game, Hannah Huffman had a great year ... There are so many people we can look to and say how much they improved their game. We're going to be able to look down the bench next year and have a lot of options."
Notre Dame's players were already talking about lifting and playing pick-up games the day after the banquet.
"I think they understand what they need to do," McGraw said of the Irish. "I think they understand the expectations. I thought the way they improved throughout the year was outstanding. Everybody gained confidence, and everybody had a big moment.
"With the three All-Americans coming in, with Kristina Nelson coming back, I feel we have great potential to be a team that's going to be hard to defend."
Notre Dame will be returning four starting players in point guard Lindsay Allen (10.4 points a game), wing Michaela Mabrey (7.2), and frontliners Brianna Turner (13.8) and Taya Reimer (10.2). The Irish will replace Jewell Loyd, who left a year early for the WNBA draft.
"It's a little bit like when Skylar left," McGraw said of when former All-American Skylar Diggins graduated. "You went, 'Oh, the focal point is gone. Now, what do we do?' Now, I think it will be spread around and more evenly distributed, but I think our post game will really step up. I love a challenge. I think the players will learn to love a challenge.
"I think Lindsay and Taya are going to really step up on the court. Their play this year really was important. I think they have the respect of their teammates based on the way they played. I think Michaela Mabrey, Hannah Huffman, Madison Cable will be great leading by example. I think they will do some talking in the locker room and make sure things are good."
Reimer was named the most improved player at the banquet, and she is determined to make even greater strides next season.
"It definitely means a lot," Reimer said of winning her award. "Just being the most improved player, it definitely feels good, just to know that people are seeing that you're working hard and you're trying to improve and get better. I think that's the biggest thing for any player, just growth. That's something that is really important to me, to be able to constantly get better and being able to say that I'm always getting better. To be recognized for that means a lot.
"I think I grew a lot this year, and I definitely matured a lot. For next season, my junior season, I'm definitely going to be more of a leader. I want to be more productive and continue to get better."
Reimer said she is ready to embrace the role of a leader even more next season.
"I think being positive will help me as a leader," Reimer said. "I think that's something I tried to do this year, just to be really positive with everybody and make sure that I helped everybody with what they were supposed to be doing--encourage everyone and let them know I believed in that. I'm going to try to continue to do that and build on that."
Allen also is being counted on as a leader as the Irish forge a new identity in 2015-2016.
"I think it's going to be tough for everyone to do more and deal with the pressure to do more," Allen said. "Now, it's more important for me to be that leader in the huddle and in the locker room, more than I was this past season. I think we're all looking forward to this next challenge.
"I'm going to try to be the leader who can say the words that have to be said but are tough to say. I think, right now, my work ethic, my calming demeanor and being a good listener will serve my leadership next season."
According to Allen, the Irish have a drive to start getting ready for next season.
"I think our attitude is great," Allen said. "We really have a chip on our shoulder from losing the national championship game plus everything that's happened since then. I think we have that attitude that we have to do more, but we're going to be fine. I think we're really excited to face the challenge and come out this summer and start getting ready for next year."
Reimer agreed the Irish were ready to put the past season in the past and move forward. She added that the Irish lineup for next season will be different, but the goals won't be different.
"I don't think our expectations change," Reimer said. "Obviously, there have been some unexpected things that have happened, but our goals are always going to be the same. We came to this school for certain reasons, and obviously one of those reasons is to win a national championship. That's always going to be a constant. We're going to figure everything out, and we're going to work as hard as we can to get back to the Final Four again."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent