Oct. 29, 2013
#7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (35-2 / 16-0 BIG EAST in 2012-13) vs. California (Pa.) Vulcans (22-9 / 15-7 PSAC in 2012-13)
DATE: Oct. 30, 2013
TIME: 7:00 p.m. ET
AT: Notre Dame, Ind. - Purcell Pavilion (9,149)
SERIES: First meeting
RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) / WatchND (live) (Bob Nagle, p-b-p)
LIVE STATS: UND.com
TEXT ALERT: UND.com
TICKETS: (574) 631-7356; UND.com/buytickets
As No. 7 Notre Dame heads into its 2013-14 exhibition opener at 7 p.m. (ET) Wednesday against NCAA Division II member California (Pa.) at Purcell Pavilion, it's clear that the more things change for the Fighting Irish, the more they remain the same.
"Change" will be the operative word in many areas for the Fighting Irish this season. The most noticeable change, not only for the women's basketball program, but for the entire Notre Dame athletics department, comes with its address. For the first time in nearly two decades, the Fighting Irish have a new conference to call home, as they join the Atlantic Coast Conference following a highly successful run in the BIG EAST Conference from 1995-2013.
Head coach Muffet McGraw has been through this transition period twice before with Notre Dame. In her second season at the Fighting Irish helm in 1988-89, she ushered her squad into the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now known as the Horizon League) after a brief stint in the now-defunct North Star Conference and promptly saw Notre Dame run roughshod through the league to the tune of an 87-15 (.853) regular season record and 10 MCC titles (five regular season, five tournament), not to mention earning the first two NCAA Championship berths in program history (1992 and 1994).
In 1995-96, McGraw and the Fighting Irish made the even bigger leap to the BIG EAST, yet the results remained largely the same. Notre Dame won more than 78 percent of its league games during that BIG EAST membership, going 232-64 against conference opposition to post the second-best winning percentage in BIG EAST history. The Fighting Irish also won three BIG EAST regular season titles, including the last two outright crowns, and added the BIG EAST Championship trophy to their mantelpiece in 2012-13, walking out the door of the now-former home with a clean sweep of the BIG EAST hardware and a spotless 19-0 record in league contests (between the regular season and tournament) to become the first team other than Connecticut to claim both championships since 1992-93.
Notre Dame also saw its national pedigree blossom exponentially during its BIG EAST era, reaching the NCAA Championship all 18 seasons it was in that conference, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen 11 times, the Final Four on five occasions and taking home the 2001 national championship. During that span, the Fighting Irish produced 14 All-Americans, 15 international basketball veterans (who accounted for 26 medals) and 13 players who went on to compete in the WNBA, including 10 WNBA Draft picks in the past 13 seasons.
So, even as Notre Dame departs the BIG EAST, McGraw is well aware that her program owes a large debt of gratitude to that conference.
"Joining the BIG EAST in 1995 helped take our program to another level," she said. "We won a national championship and went to five Final Fours while elevating ourselves into one of the elite teams in the country. That was due in no small part to the strong competition and the added exposure we gained by joining the BIG EAST. We will always be appreciative and thankful for everything that conference did for us, and will have nothing but great memories of our time there."
With the BIG EAST now in its rear-view mirror, Notre Dame looks forward to its new affiliation with the ACC, a conference that sent seven teams to the NCAA Championship last year, and has no fewer than four programs ranked among the top 10 in most of the major national preseason publications for 2013-14. In addition, players from ACC schools make up nearly one-quarter of the candidates on this year's Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Wade Trophy watch list, and there is no shortage of talent among the incoming freshman class in the conference, with nearly every ACC squad adding one or more blue-chip rookies to their roster this fall.
As the Fighting Irish set foot in their new league residence, McGraw knows that an uncertain but exciting future lies ahead for her program.
"It's natural to feel a sense of anxiety and unease because of the unknown," she said. "There's a lot we are going to have learn on the fly about the ACC -- the styles of play, the personnel, the coaches, the cities and arenas, even the officiating. That's the kind of thing you can only learn by doing, so we'll do our best to be prepared and then adjust as we go through this first season. At the same time, we're joining what we believe is the strongest conference in the country and one that has great potential to reach even greater heights in the coming years. That's something you can't help but embrace and look forward to, and we think our program will only continue to grow and develop further by becoming part of the ACC."
The changes that Notre Dame will experience this season aren't only limited to their conference affiliation. For the first time in four years, the Fighting Irish will take the floor without arguably the best player in program history, Skylar Diggins, in uniform. Along with classmate and fellow guard Kaila Turner, the dynamic Diggins helped lead Notre Dame to a school-record 130 wins and three consecutive Final Four appearances, including back-to-back national title game berths, not to mention two BIG EAST regular season championships and a tournament crown during her storied career.
Along the way, the South Bend native set 32 school records, including Fighting Irish standards for career points (2,357) and steals (381), and she was a four-year All-American, garnering consensus first-team honors in her final two seasons. Diggins also was two-time recipient of the Nancy Lieberman Award as the nation's top point guard and was a key factor in making Notre Dame the hottest ticket in town (and perhaps the country), with the Fighting Irish ranking among the top five in the nation in attendance each of the past four years and selling out close to half (30) of their 66 home games during her tenure.
Having just completed her first season in the WNBA and earning a spot on the league's All-Rookie Team after being chosen third overall in the first round of the WNBA Draft by the Tulsa Shock, Diggins will be fondly remembered by her coach.
"It would be naïve for us not to recognize and appreciate the wonderful and special talents that Skylar brought during her career," McGraw said. "She was an important piece of what we were able to accomplish for the past four years and she will always remain one of the greatest student-athletes at Notre Dame, not just in our program's history, but in the history of our University as a whole."
However, as much as McGraw celebrates the achievements of her departed senior class, she just as quickly points out that this year's team has turned the page and is prepared to begin a new chapter in its story -- one without the BIG EAST or Diggins, and one with the ACC and a stellar roster that includes four starters and nine returning monogram winners, including two All-Americans and the reigning National Freshman of the Year, all of whom are focused on ensuring that the program's standard of excellence, highlighted by Final Four appearances the past three seasons, remains the same.
"We met about a week after (last) season ended and started to look ahead at this year," McGraw said. "We have an outstanding group of 13 young women coming together with a great mix of talent and experience. I like to call us a `young experienced' team because while we have a lot of players who have competed in some really high-profile situations, many of them are still fairly young to the college game. With Skylar (Diggins) and Kaila (Turner) gone, we've challenged each of the returning players to see if they can do a little bit more, both on and off the court, to make up that difference that we lost with those two. We gained a lot from the chance to go on a tour of Europe in August, when we were able get our freshmen acclimated to our system and our expectations, but we're still a work in progress, and right now, we're just looking to keep improving and developing each day and with each practice."
Talented guard play has long been a staple of the Notre Dame women's basketball program. The list of All-America guards to wear the Fighting Irish uniform through the years is long and legendary, a roll call that not only includes Diggins, but current assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Niele Ivey, the NCAA's career leader in three-point percentage, Alicia Ratay, and a pair of gritty, blue-collar players who went on to earn their stripes in the WNBA in Megan Duffy and Natalie Novosel.
When all is said and done, senior guard Kayla McBride will find herself among that list of Notre Dame greats. An athletic and powerful wing from Erie, Pa., she is easily one of the nation's most potent and versatile offensive threats, blending a sharp scoring mentality with polished playmaking and rugged physicality. McBride also maintains perhaps the purest and most efficient shooting stroke in the country and is highly skilled in the lost art of the mid-range jumper.
A WBCA Coaches' All-American and Associated Press third-team All-American last season as well as a prime candidate for every major national award this season, McBride is Notre Dame's top returning scorer, having averaged career bests of 15.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game with a school-record .900 free throw percentage a year ago. She also proved to be at her best in pressure situations, not only earning first-team all-conference honors, but taking home the BIG EAST Championship Most Outstanding Player trophy after averaging 16.7 points per game and leading the Fighting Irish to the 2013 conference tournament crown.
McBride was particularly strong down the stretch, scoring at least 20 points in six of her final 11 games and logging 19.4 points per contest in the NCAA Championship. What's more, she sliced through Connecticut in the teams' epic four-game series last year, averaging 21.5 points per game while helping Notre Dame defeat the Huskies three times in that quartet of classics. It was those kinds of performances that caught the eye of USA Basketball observers, who chose McBride as one of six collegians to participate in the USA Senior National Team mini-camp in October 2013 in Las Vegas, with the camp designed to identify the player pool from which the American squads for the 2014 FIBA World Championships and 2016 Summer Olympics will be chosen.
"In my opinion, Kayla is the best player in the country," McGraw said. "Her fundamentals, her court awareness and her efficiency are unlike anyone else out there. She has this calm, focused way about her that rubs off on her teammates and is very reassuring. She leads by example, and that started by the way she came back this summer, ready to go from day one and really looking so strong and prepared. It's that kind of dedication and drive that really sets the tone for everyone.
"With some of the new rules and officiating points of emphasis that are coming into play this year, it makes it even more important for Kayla to continue to attack and be aggressive," McGraw added. "She's such a weapon at the free throw line and we need her to take advantage of that as much as possible. Her three-point shot has also continued to get better and better, and with her strong ballhandling and understanding of our offense, we won't hesitate to even use her as a backup at point guard if the situation presented itself. Overall, I think she's in line for an outstanding senior season."
It took just one year for Jewell Loyd to show why she is in line to join the parade of All-America guards to come through the Fighting Irish program. The Lincolnwood, Ill., product was named the 2012-13 United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) National Freshman of the Year, as well as the BIG EAST Freshman of the Year, after averaging 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game with a team-high .413 three-point percentage. Like McBride, she elevated her play in the postseason, averaging 16.8 points per game in the NCAA Championship, including a career-high 27 points in her NCAA postseason debut, a first-round win over Tennessee-Martin.
A smooth-shooting wing, Loyd boasts a tremendous overall skill set. She's creative and athletic, moving around the floor with a fluid, seemingly effortless style that makes her a threat either in transition or in Notre Dame's potent half-court offense. What's more, she has evolved into her team's top defender, with long arms and quickness that can lock down opponents, as well as a sensational leaping ability that allows her to both block shots and soar inside among taller players for rebounds.
"Jewell had a terrific freshman year," McGraw said. "Now the challenge for her is to build on that first year, to take what she learned and grow even further because the sky's really the limit for what she can accomplish. We'd like her to be an even better rebounder and be even more aggressive out there. Sometimes, she can almost be too unselfish with the ball and we're looking for her to take a larger role in our offense this year. The great thing is she wants to learn and get better, she's very coachable and she's very self-motivated, and that's what makes her future so bright."
Although now in her junior year at Notre Dame, Madison Cable is actually beginning her second full season of action, having missed her freshman campaign with stress fractures in both feat. Last year, the Mt. Lebanon, Pa., resident, showed flashes of what made her a high school All-American, averaging 4.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per game while ranking second among returning players with a .357 three-point percentage. She also scored in double figures three times and proved to be a valuable reserve for the Fighting Irish, despite seeing her minutes occasionally limited while her injuries continued to heal.
A strong, blue-collar player, Cable has the versatility to play either on the wing or in the backcourt. She is a fundamentally sound athlete with a sharp basketball IQ who understands strategy and has blended seamlessly into Notre Dame's complex offensive system. Cable also can stretch defenses with her perimeter scoring ability, but she isn't afraid to attack the paint and get to the foul line when the situation demands.
"It took Maddie a little while to get back in the flow after being out of action for a year, but as things wore on, she got more and more comfortable," McGraw said. "That continued during our European tour, with the way she's been more assertive and confident. She demands so much of herself out there and you know you're going to get 100-percent effort out of Maddie every time she's on the floor. Now that she's had a full year back in uniform, she's closer to being adjusted to the pace and quickness of the college game and that's only going to help her growth moving forward."
Another young player who created a buzz in her first season with the Fighting Irish was sophomore guard Michaela Mabrey. The Belmar, N.J., native appeared in 30 games as a rookie, averaging 3.0 points and 1.3 assists per game, mixing a deep range on her three-point shot with a strong passing instinct and creative flair on the ball. She also was not fazed by high-pressure situations, as evidenced by her 11 points and three three-pointers in Notre Dame's one-point win at Connecticut in early January, helping the Fighting Irish to their first-ever road victory at a top-ranked team.
Mabrey was one of many Notre Dame players who took the early postseason team meeting to heart, looking at several ways to improve her game. Among those was an enhanced strength & conditioning program that produced noticeable results and put her into the rotation as one of the Fighting Irish reserve point guards for the upcoming season. She also displayed added court confidence, as shown by her 12.3-ppg. scoring average during the team's European tour, highlighted by a game-high 24 points and six three-pointers in the tour-opening win over English Basketball League runner-up Barking Abbey.
"Michaela has the potential to do some big things and the work she put in this summer is a perfect example of what she can do," McGraw said. "She's a threat at the offensive end with her perimeter scoring and her passing ability. The key for her is to continue getting stronger and working to grow her defensive contributions, which will only make her an even more valuable part of our guard rotation."
Women's college basketball has instituted a 10-second backcourt rule this season, and don't be surprised if you heard a scream of joy coming from Plainfield, Ill., when the rule was announced. That city's favorite daughter, and Fighting Irish junior, Whitney Holloway will likely be her team's biggest beneficiary from the new edict. The speedy 5-foot-4 guard averaged a career-high 2.7 points and 1.0 assists per game, but it's her quickness and athleticism that should make her a pest for opponents this season.
Holloway has served as one of Notre Dame's understudies at the point guard spot the past two seasons, learning from an All-America position coach in Ivey, as well as behind an All-American teammate in Diggins. Having matched up in practice against one of the nation's top point guards, not to mention playing some of the nation's toughest competition on the road to Final Four appearances the past two seasons, there isn't a whole lot that Holloway hasn't seen in her college career, leaving her well-prepared when her number is called this year.
"Whit is one of those `young experienced' players we talk about," McGraw said. "She's played in a lot of games in her first couple of years, but her minutes have been a bit limited. Now she has the opportunity to step into a bigger role in our rotation, not only as a point guard, but certainly with her defensive mindset and ability to really create havoc at that end of the floor. She's an energy-type player and someone that can give us that added boost in some important situations."
Hannah Huffman is the other veteran returning in the Fighting Irish backcourt, although the Diablo, Calif., resident, wore a different hat last year, providing depth on both the wing and in the post, with Notre Dame having just three others at the latter position a season ago. This year, she will move exclusively to the wing and continue to develop after appearing in 25 games last year, averaging 1.9 points and 2.0 rebounds per game.
A powerful and versatile player, Huffman isn't shy about mixing it up down on the blocks despite her 5-foot-9 frame. She's also displayed a bulldog determination and nonstop motor, qualities that have endeared her to teammates, coaches and fans alike.
"Hannah really adds to our depth in several different positions," McGraw said. "Her strength is such an asset and allowed us to put her in an unfamiliar role as a post last year and she more than held her own. She's so important to our team, on and off the floor, and she's only going to keep growing and getting better as she continues to gain experience at the college level."
The lone new face to the Notre Dame guard lineup this season will be Lindsay Allen. The native of Mitchellville, Md., was a McDonald's, WBCA and USA Today first-team All-USA High School All-American last year after averaging 16.0 points, 8.0 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game, leading her St. John's College High School team to a 27-1 record and the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) championship -- the highest level of competition in Washington, D.C., with no state tournament in the District.
Allen also has international basketball experience, having earned a gold medal as a member of the 2012 USA Basketball Under-17 National Team that went 8-0 to win the FIBA U17 World Championships in Amsterdam. Allen started all eight games for the United States, averaging 4.4 points per game while leading all tournament players with 4.1 assists per game and a 2.36 assist/turnover ratio, not to mention shooting .560 from the field and .500 from the three-point line.
A quick, athletic point guard with a strong feel for the game, Allen sees the court extremely well and is constantly looking to put her teammates in the best possible position to score. She also can break defenses apart with her slashing drives, or keep them honest with her perimeter scoring ability. What's more, she picks up new concepts very quickly, as proven by her performance on Notre Dame's European tour this past summer when she averaged 10.3 points, 6.7 assists and 3.0 steals per game with a .545 field goal percentage despite a very limited knowledge of the Fighting Irish system.
"Lindsay has all the tools to be a terrific college point guard," McGraw said. "She creates well off the dribble, she can read defenses and she is able to read her teammates and get the ball to them in just the right spots. Her performance over in Europe really showed us a lot. Her defensive skills also are very strong and the more time she gets on the floor, both in practice and in games, the more confident and comfortable she's going to become."
For many teams, leadership naturally comes from the point guard position. However, in Notre Dame's case, with the graduation of Diggins and the introduction of a new floor general, leadership will come from a different source and the Fighting Irish have a strong one in senior forward Natalie Achonwa.
In her first year as a starter in 2012-13, the Guelph, Ontario, product emerged as one of the country's top post players, doubling her production in both scoring and rebounding to 13.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game while piling up a school-record 19 double-doubles in 37 games. She also maintained her career-long shooting efficiency, currently ranking ninth in school history with a .542 lifetime field goal percentage. In addition, she has a chance to move into the top 10 on Notre Dame's career charts for rebounds and double-doubles.
An honorable mention All-America choice last season and a leading contender for national honors this year, Achonwa will be the veteran voice in a young post corps for the Fighting Irish. As the first international player in program history, the Canadian forward has a unique blend of on-the-block moves combined with a strong perimeter game. She also is particularly mobile for someone of her 6-foot-3 frame, making her especially dangerous in transition.
However, what makes Achonwa unlike virtually any other player in the country is her experience on the biggest stages. Not only has she helped Notre Dame advance to the Final Four the past three seasons, but she also led her native Canada to the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Olympics, marking the first time in 28 years that Canada reached the medal round. It was the centerpiece of what has been a long and successful partnership for Achonwa with Canada Basketball, a pairing that has yielded three international medals, most recently a silver at the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship in Xalapa, Mexico, matching one of the best finishes ever recorded by a Canadian women's basketball team.
"We're expecting big things from Natalie this season," McGraw said. "As a product of the international game, she has the ability to play inside with her back to the basket, or to step outside and hit the jumper. She's also probably our strongest passer in the post and she moves well without the ball. In addition, she's a natural leader and has transitioned very smoothly into the role as one of our captains, both in the way she helps mentor our younger players on the court and the way she keeps our program's expectations in mind in terms of how everyone competes on a daily basis. With all the confidence she gained last year and the way she continues to work to improve her game, she's set up to have a great senior season."
When it comes to improvement on the Notre Dame roster, attention almost immediately swings to Achonwa's classmate and front-line partner, Ariel Braker. During her first two seasons, the Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., native battled through a myriad of knee problems that dated back to the end of her high school career and significantly hampered her development. However, prior to last season, Braker finally was able to complete a full summer workout regimen, which set the stage for a remarkable 2012-13 campaign.
After appearing in 57 games (no starts) in her first two years, Braker crashed the Fighting Irish starting lineup three games into last season and never gave up her spot, earning the nod in 33 of the team's final 36 games while more than doubling her production in scoring (5.4 ppg.) and rebounding (5.4 rpg.), the latter figure winding up second on the team. She also led the Fighting Irish with a .581 field goal percentage and was among the top shot blockers in the BIG EAST, ranking 10th in the conference at a team-high 1.25 blocks per game (45 overall).
A long and lanky post player with good athleticism, Braker plays bigger than her 6-foot-1 size, due in large part to her tremendous wingspan and agility. While her offensive contributions continue to blossom, it's her defensive skills that provide the biggest value for Notre Dame, whether on the glass or blocking shots. In addition, she joins Achonwa and McBride in making up not only the Fighting Irish senior class, but also the team's trio of captains, adding another veteran presence who has known nothing but the highest level of success since coming to Notre Dame.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find another player in the country who was more improved last year than Ariel," McGraw said. "She's such a strong defender for us, maybe one of our best in the way that she can affect a game with her shot blocking and rebounding. It will be important to have her voice and experience helping to lead our younger players this season, especially working to show our younger posts the finer points of our system."
The other veteran post back in the Fighting Irish stable this season is junior Markisha Wright. The Des Moines product has shown steady growth in her first two seasons at Notre Dame, averaging career bests of 4.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last year, when she appeared in 36 games and made her first career start (one of six returning Fighting Irish players with starting experience). During her career, Wright has scored in double figures seven times (including two 20-point games) and has a pair of double-doubles to her credit.
A strong, athletic post, Wright is well-schooled in the fundamentals and moved fluidly around the basket. She also has a nose for the glass and a solid understanding of positioning in the lane at both ends of the court. What's more, she brings an added level of physicality on the blocks and should ably complement her fellow veterans in the post, not to mention serve as a voice of experience for the newer Fighting Irish players.
"Markisha has made good progress throughout her career," McGraw said. "She's got a powerful body and sets very good screens, which fits well in our offense. She also has stepped into some key situations for us and played very well, which has helped build her confidence. She plays the game hard and as she continues to trust her instincts out there even more, she's only going to get better and better."
Notre Dame associate head coach Carol Owens has been smiling from ear to ear all summer long and it's because the renowned Fighting Irish post guru has a trio of new pupils to join the three returning veterans in her stable of talent in the paint.
Taya Reimer is the latest Indiana native to suit up for Notre Dame, looking to join a long line of successful Hoosier State residents who have worn the Fighting Irish colors, a roll call that includes Ruth Riley, Jacqueline Batteast and even Reimer's own associate coach, Beth (Morgan) Cunningham.
Reimer's prep credentials were outstanding, as she earned McDonald's, WBCA and USA Today first-team All-USA High School All-America honors following her senior season when she averaged 20.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.4 steals and 2.2 blocks per game. She also was named the Morgan Wootten National High School Player of the Year (as presented by McDonald's) and was a close runner-up in the voting for Indiana Miss Basketball accolades. In addition, she has significant international experience, having earned gold medals with USA Basketball teams at the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championships and 2012 FIBA U17 World Championships (starting with Allen in the latter event and averaging 9.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game).
A smooth and agile power forward, Reimer has the ability to battle on the blocks or step outside and stretch defenses from the perimeter. Her 6-foot-3 frame makes her a true asset on defense as a rebounder and a shot blocker, while her quickness should allow her to be a weapon both in transition and the half-court offense. Those traits were on display during Notre Dame's European tour, when Reimer averaged 11.3 points and a team-high 7.7 rebounds per game with a .517 field goal percentage, posting one double-double and nearly adding a second in the three-game series.
"Taya gives us another dimension in our post game with her athleticism and versatility," McGraw said. "She's very quick for a player of her size and moves well with and without the ball. She also has that nice outside shot or can take you off the dribble, which isn't always easy for a post player, and she's a solid passer. As the season moves along, she has the chance to make some important contributions for us in a number of areas."
Another of the Fighting Irish rookie posts is Kristina Nelson. The 6-foot-3 forward from Buford, Ga., averaged 13.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game during her prep career, which was limited in the latter stages due to a shoulder injury. Prior to being sidelined, Nelson was an honorable mention all-state selection and three-time all-region choice, and she was part of three consecutive state semifinal squads, including a Class 2A state championship team at Buford High School during her junior season.
A powerful player, Nelson offers good size and footwork as part of her extensive fundamental base. She also has soft hands and finishes well around the basket, particularly with contact, but it's on the defensive end where she's expected to offer the greatest contributions during her rookie season.
"Kristina is still working her way back from her shoulder injury," McGraw said. "Her size and power are something that will be important to our post depth this year. She rebounds well and is eager to learn and having the time to work with Carol (Owens) during the season will only help her grow and develop for the future."
While Nelson brings the size and power, freshman center Diamond Thompson brings the height and length. At 6-foot-4, Thompson is the tallest player on this year's Fighting Irish roster and will be counted on to offer added depth in the post, especially on defense with her rebounding and shot-blocking capability.
"Diamond is another of our young posts who will benefit from some time in our system," McGraw said. "She has good defensive instincts and excellent length as part of a solid fundamental base and she will be an important part of our depth, both in practice and game situations."
Take a look at the 2013-14 Fighting Irish schedule, and one thought comes to mind -- you can go home again.
Through the years, Notre Dame has felt right at home when squaring off with some of the nation's top programs, and that will be no different this season, as the Fighting Irish will play more than half their games (15) against 14 teams that advanced to last year's NCAA Championship, and 10 against squads that were ranked or receiving votes in the final Associated Press and/or WBCA-USA Today polls last year (including seven games against teams ranked 13th or better in the year-end AP poll).
Highlighting that group of top-flight opponents is 2013 NCAA Elite Eight participant and reigning ACC champion Duke, which Notre Dame will face in a home-and-home series (Feb. 2 in Durham, N.C.; Feb. 23 at Purcell Pavilion), with both games televised live on ESPN as part of that network's new Sunday afternoon women's basketball package. Last year, the Fighting Irish eliminated Duke from the NCAA Championship, earning an 87-76 victory over the Blue Devils in the NCAA Norfolk Regional final.
"Our schedule is an extremely challenging one and it's set up in such a way that is going to prepare us for the conference season and then the postseason," McGraw said. "Between the various styles of play and some unfamiliar environments, especially in a brand-new conference, and not to mention experiencing some quick turnarounds, we're going to be tested both physically and mentally, and that should be very beneficial to us at the season moves on."
Notre Dame also has been at home on television, whether through commercial means or through the growing Internet live-streaming market on the University's groundbreaking free athletics multimedia platform, WatchND (watchnd.tv). That will continue to be the case in 2013-14, as the Fighting Irish make a minimum of 21 regular season TV appearances, including the aforementioned two ESPN games against Duke and two more contests on the ESPN2 "Big Monday" package, with road games in consecutive weeks at non-conference foe and Elite Eight qualifier Tennessee (Jan. 20) and Sweet 16 participant Maryland (Jan. 27). The Fighting Irish have won all six "Big Monday" games they have played in the past two seasons, winning twice each over Tennessee, Connecticut and Louisville. Overall, Notre Dame has played in 257 televised games in the past 14 seasons (1999-2000 to present), including 175 national TV contests, an average of 18 TV games and 12 national broadcasts during that span.
When it comes to Notre Dame women's basketball, home is all about Purcell Pavilion, with the Fighting Irish slated to play 15 regular-season games in its legendary home facility, adding the visit from Duke with appearances by NCAA second-round qualifiers North Carolina, UCLA and Michigan State. Purcell Pavilion also will add another page in its ever-growing history book on Jan. 5, when the Fighting Irish play host to Clemson in the program's first-ever ACC regular-season game (as well as their first matchup with the Tigers, one of five new opponents on this year's Notre Dame's schedule).
The Fighting Irish also will enter select company in March as one of four host sites for NCAA regionals in the 2014 NCAA Championship The Notre Dame Regional will take place March 29 (semifinals at noon and 2:30 p.m. ET) and March 31 (final at 7:30 p.m. ET), with ESPN providing live coverage of all three games from Purcell Pavilion. It will mark the second time the Fighting Irish will play host to NCAA regional action, having previously done so in 1983. Notre Dame also will be a competition site in the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship for the ninth time, and the fourth time in six seasons. Most recently in March 2012, the Fighting Irish began their run to a second of three consecutive NCAA Women's Final Four appearances with victories at Purcell Pavilion over Liberty (74-43) and California (73-62) in the first two rounds of the NCAA Championship's Raleigh Region. The Fighting Irish are 10-2 all-time in NCAA tournament play on the Purcell Pavilion hardwood, advancing to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in 2000, 2001, 2004, 2010 and 2012, reaching the NCAA Women's Final Four in 2001 and 2012, and winning their first national championship in 2001.
Throughout its 36-year history of hosting women's basketball games, Purcell Pavilion has built a reputation as one of the nation's toughest venues, with the Fighting Irish posting a 384-90 (.810) all-time record at home, including a 64-4 (.941) mark since 2009-10. What's more, Notre Dame has arguably the country's fastest-growing fan base, with the Fighting Irish average attendance growing more than 35 percent in the past eight seasons, and the program setting new records for average attendance and ranking in the top five nationally the past three years (as well as the top 20 for the past 13 years). Last year, the Fighting Irish drew a school-record 8,979 fans per game and recorded a program-best 11 sellouts (part of 36 all-time sellouts, including 30 in the past four years alone). "Our fans are the best in the country and we want to do all we can to give them the best basketball at Purcell Pavilion," McGraw said. "This year, we have several strong teams coming to town, plus some familiar faces like DePaul and Valparaiso, and a couple of new visitors both inside and outside the conference such as South Dakota State and Georgia Tech. There's something for everyone to enjoy on our home schedule this year."
No matter where Notre Dame plays in 2013-14, home will have a very special meaning, as no fewer than 24 members of the Fighting Irish program (from players and coaches to administrators and support staff) will see Notre Dame play at least once within approximately a two-hour drive of their hometown. The highlight of the Fighting Irish "coming home" tour will be on Dec. 1, when Achonwa leads Notre Dame to her home country of Canada and a very special neutral-site game against Duquesne, to be played in Toronto (one hour east of Achonwa's hometown of Guelph) at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens (the legendary home of the National Hockey League's Toronto Maple Leafs from 1931-99, and now a multi-purpose venue for Ryerson University).
"One of our scheduling philosophies has been to do everything possible to play a home game in or near the hometown of each of our players," McGraw said. "I'm thrilled we were able to work with Duquesne, which has some Canadian players on its roster as well, along with Ryerson University and the NCAA to make this game possible. We're so happy that Natalie will get the chance to play in front of her family and friends on what should be a memorable trip for all of us."
From Toronto to Tallahassee and Corvallis to Chestnut Hill, Notre Dame will be playing from coast to coast all over North America in 2013-14. Yet, while the locations may change on the schedule, the expectations remain the same for the Fighting Irish -- maintaining and raising the level of excellence for a program that has proven itself to be one of the true powerhouses in women's college basketball.
-- Chris Masters, Associate Athletic Media Relations Director