Nov. 10, 2011
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011-12 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish women's basketball team, which drove to the doorstep of history last year with a 31-8 record and berth in the NCAA national championship game and returns four starters from that club this season.
Time is a valuable commodity. It can be measured in numerous ways, whether by smaller increments such as seconds, minutes and hours, or by larger units such as days, weeks, months and even years. No matter the measure, time is important, it's fleeting and once it's gone, it can never be retrieved.
In the case of last year's Notre Dame women's basketball program, the six-month period from the first day of preseason practice through the final horn of the NCAA national championship game provided memories in time that will last forever. It was a season almost unlike any other in Fighting Irish history, and in fact, for the vast majority of college basketball programs around the country, a trip to the national championship game and a 31-8 record would be cause for celebration.
Yet, for the Notre Dame players and coaches, it's motivation to take care of unfinished business. That's because for all the time spent in the gym during practice, and the countless hours players spent alone working constantly on fundamentals, it was a stretch of less than 16 minutes in the second half of the national championship game that each one of the Fighting Irish wants back ... and yet it can never be retrieved.
After building a seven-point lead at the first media timeout of the second half in that title game against Texas A&M, Notre Dame wasn't able to maintain that lead. When that final horn sounded, six points were all that separated Notre Dame from its second national championship, leaving the Fighting Irish just short of their goal.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for a Notre Dame squad that already had made history as the first program ever to defeat Tennessee and Connecticut in the same season, let alone to do it in consecutive games and do it in back-to-back contests within the pressure cooker of the NCAA Championship. The table had been set for the Fighting Irish to finish their storybook run, playing on the game's biggest stage in front of virtually a home crowd at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis ... and yet those 16 minutes can never be retrieved.
Or can they? With the memories of celebratory (and erroneously-dropped) blue and gold confetti sticking to their shoes, their hair and their uniforms as they trudged into the locker room, the Fighting Irish already were making a silent vow ... never again. They would find a way to get those 16 minutes back, to get those six points back, to bridge the gap, to make the difference between runners-up and champions.
Four starters and nine monogram winners return for Notre Dame in 2011-12 from that NCAA national runner-up team, combining with an incoming freshman class that has been ranked as high as ninth in the country. Three of those returning starters earned All-America honors last year, and between them, this highly-talented threesome scored 1,638 points last season (an average of 42 points per game) while giving Notre Dame a bonafide All-America threat at each of the major court positions (point guard, wing and post).
Meanwhile, the fourth returning starter is a wily veteran who enters her second year as a team captain, providing valuable guidance for the hungry Fighting Irish. They're all led by a Hall of Fame coach in Muffet McGraw, who enters her silver anniversary season at Notre Dame, looking to spin 24-karat championship gold.
"I sense that hunger in the coaching staff and the four returning starters," McGraw said. "That's the theme -- unfinished business. The challenge is to get the rest of the group on their page and that's going to a big challenge because I think that when you come in as a freshman and you have that kind of success, you don't necessarily understand how hard it was to get there. That's what the seniors and the juniors know and understand. It took us a long time to get there (to the national championship game), so they are prepared to continue to work at that level, but I'm not sure the underclassmen have an idea of the challenge they have ahead of them. It's up to us as coaches to keep raising those expectations in practice on a daily basis and that they carry over to game situations. That's what's going to make the difference."
Exceptional guard play is the key to any successful basketball team, and in junior Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame has arguably the nation's top floor general. Although in just her second year at the helm of the Fighting Irish offense, Diggins already has proven herself to be a dynamic playmaker with the ability to put a team on her back and lift them to another level.
Thus it was no wonder Diggins was named to the State Farm Coaches All-America Team (the third Notre Dame player and first Fighting Irish sophomore to be so honored), as well as earning third-team Associated Press All-America status. A finalist for every major national player-of-the-year award last year, as well as the Nancy Lieberman Award as the nation's top point guard and the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Dayton Regional, Diggins averaged 15.0 points and a team-high 4.9 assists per game while becoming the first Fighting Irish player ever to pile up 400 points, 100 assists and 75 steals in a season twice in her career. She also went over the 1,000-point mark for her career late last year, joining the school's all-time leading scorer, Beth Morgan, as the only Notre Dame sophomores to reach the scoring millennium.
During the summer of 2011, Diggins continued to hone her skill set and dedicated herself to an enhanced strength and conditioning program at Notre Dame as part of her training for the USA World University Games Team. Making the squad with teammates Natalie Novosel and Devereaux Peters, the Fighting Irish trio made history by becoming the first Notre Dame threesome to win gold medals for the same USA Basketball team in the same international competition, leading the United States to a 6-0 record and the tournament title in Shenzhen, China.
Diggins plays the game with passion, intensity and poise, displaying a court savvy well beyond her years. Now with the burning desire to right what she and her teammates see as a wrong that occurred at the end of last season, one would be hard-pressed to believe that the best could be yet to come for this groundbreaking athlete.
"I have never had a player like her," McGraw said. "You can watch her game and she is obviously a very good player in a lot of different ways. But when you look and see what her biggest strength is, it's all intangibles. I have never had a player with the drive to win that she has. I have never had a player as competitive. She wills the ball in the basket. You saw her step up on a national stage in the NCAA tournament and play the best basketball of her career on the biggest stage.
"She just simply refuses to lose and she brings the team with her," McGraw added. "She is so fun to watch because of the way she competes every day and that is the way she plays in practice. She competes every day. She does want to lose a drill or a pick up game and when you have a leader who is your hardest worker and everyone body on the team respects and listen to, you are in great shape. When that person also plays the point you know your team is in good hands."
Entering her senior year, Natalie Novosel is coming off a season in 2010-11 that saw her emerge as the nation's most improved player. The Lexington, Ky., native more than tripled her scoring average to a team-high 15.1 points per game, while adding 4.0 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game, not to mention a sensational team-best .413 three-point percentage. Whether it was on the perimeter or driving down the lane to create a record-setting 183 free throws on 232 attempts, Novosel was a handful for opponents on a nightly basis, rolling up 33 double-figure scoring games, including seven 20-point outings.
Novosel's improvement did not go unnoticed, either within the BIG EAST Conference, or around the country. She earned honorable mention status on the State Farm Coaches All-America Team and was a first-team all-conference selection, as well as the BIG EAST's Most Improved Player. She also made the NCAA Dayton Regional and BIG EAST Championship all-tournament teams, in addition to collecting MVP accolades at the WBCA Classic.
A slick passer and shooter with an uncanny ability to finish with contact in traffic, Novosel also is one of Notre Dame's strongest players, allowing her to take the punishment and come back for more without complaint and without hesitation. It's that toughness and dogged determination that made her a valuable member of the USA World University Games Team, and it was those traits that led her teammates to select Novosel as one of three team captains for the 2011-12 season.
"To think that she came from what we knew was a player with great potential, to make a giant leap over last summer was a huge boost to her confidence level," McGraw stated. "She's the most mentally-tough player we have on the team, without question. She plays through injury and plays through pain. She never wants to take a break and doesn't take a minute off. She works hard every day at practice and she loves to compete. She is a little quieter as a leader. She is not quite as vocal but she makes her presence known. She wants the ball at crunch time. She wants to take the big shot and wants to make the big play. She had a tremendous season and we are expecting big things from her again this year."
While Diggins and Novosel may be the flash and muscle in the Fighting Irish backcourt, fifth-year senior guard Brittany Mallory is the cerebral assassin. The Baltimore resident is the textbook definition of a "coach on the floor," someone who understands every intricacy and nuance of the Notre Dame offensive and defensive schemes. She reads opposing defenses with ease and causes headaches with her feisty, bulldog-like tendencies as one of the BIG EAST's top defenders, someone who takes pride in guarding the opponent's top player each time out.
"Brittany is the glue to our team," McGraw noted. "You look at her contributions and you know you can't win without her. She is as important as anyone else on the team from what she brings. She has the ability to spot up from the three-point line, the intelligent play with the ball and the assist-to-turnover ratio. But then for her to become our best defender, that was something that we didn't even expect and she grew into that role, which is the most important role that you have. You have to shut down the other team's best player and she does it night-in and night-out. She is so well-respected by the coaching and staff and has an incredibly upbeat demeanor every day. She is very steady emotionally, a great teammate and someone that when you look at the different personalities, she is one that keeps everyone together."
Although she didn't play a full season as a rookie due to an off-the-court issue, sophomore guard Kayla McBride only needed those 19 games to prove she's destined to be an impact player for the Fighting Irish. The Erie, Pa., native ranked fifth on the team in scoring (and tops among all reserves) at 8.7 points per game, while ending up third on the squad with a sharp .557 field goal percentage. She also started four times when Mallory went down with an ankle injury in the season's third game, giving Notre Dame a fifth returning player with starting experience heading into 2011-12.
A gifted and powerful wing player, McBride blends athleticism and a fearless nature inside the arc with a dangerous perimeter game. She's also solid in the Fighting Irish possession game with good court vision and is a key asset on defense with the ability to cause havoc due to her quick hands and instincts.
"Kayla came off a great summer and she came back in ready to go," McGraw said. "I think she did a great job for us last year in practice and now she wants at the opportunity in the game and she is going to be a surprise. She may be somebody who is the most improved player in the BIG EAST, just because I don't think anyone expects her to play as much of a role as we do."
Another Notre Dame player who could be poised for a breakout campaign in '11-12 in junior Kaila Turner. The Joliet resident spent her first two seasons as a backup point guard for the Fighting Irish, averaging a career-high 2.7 points per game, while ranking second on the team with a 1.30 assist-to-turnover ratio and an .828 free throw percentage, as well as third with a .322 three-point percentage and 1.7 assists per game.
While she will still see some time at the helm of the team's offensive sets, Turner will primarily play at the shooting guard spot, allowing Notre Dame to take better advantage of her blossoming perimeter game.
"Kaila is coming off a really good summer," McGraw observed. "If I had to pick a player who actually had the best summer, it would probably be Kaila. She has really impressed us with her workouts and her conditioning and she is ready to go. We expect that she will shoot a lot of threes and be big for us at the three-point line."
Perhaps no single player on the Fighting Irish roster creates more of a buzz inside Purcell Pavilion when she steps on the floor than senior Fraderica Miller. With a mix of speed and aggressiveness on defense, the Atlanta product has had numerous opponents scratching their heads as they see her fly by and knock another ball free for one of Notre Dame's many steals.
Miller also has some experience in the post, and could offer capable support on the blocks, thanks to her defensive intensity and her underappreciated leaping ability and long arms that allow her to latch on to rebounds in traffic.
"Fraderica can change the game in a heartbeat," McGraw stated. "She comes into the game and everybody moves to the edge of their seat because they know something good is going to happen. She forces the other team into a lot of turnovers. She is tenacious defensively and gets the crowd involved. She makes the other team's point guard nervous when she gets on the court. She was really a big factor in our success late in the season in the BIG EAST tournament and also in the NCAA tournament. She's also a veteran player with great experience and she will continue to have that role of being that spark. You need that energy boost and spark off the bench and she will provide that."
Notre Dame will add two young guards to its lineup this season, both of whom have strong high school pedigrees. Madison Cable (Mt. Lebanon, Pa.) is a crafty and versatile player who can play inside or outside. She was named the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in the state of Pennsylvania and a Parade Magazine All-American in her final high school season, in addition to being a three-time all-state honoree. She averaged 17.4 points per game last year while leading Mount Lebanon High School to its third consecutive Pennsylvania Class 4A state championship.
Meanwhile, Whitney Holloway (Plainfield, Ill.) is a speedy point guard who combines exceptional court awareness with offensive punch. She averaged 14.2 points, 4.6 assists and 4.1 steals per game as a senior in 2010-11, helping Montini Catholic High School to a 36-1 record and its second consecutive Illinois Class 3A state championship. For her career, she was a three-time all-state selection, scoring 1,594 points and shooting 64 percent from the field.
"We have a lot of guards and they (the freshmen) are going to learn a lot this year," McGraw said. "Madison can watch Natalie (Novosel) and Brittany (Mallory) and see what they do and learn to play that role that they are playing for our team. Madison also is a very good rebounder and her length helps us defensively. She can also get to the basket, and with a little bit of strength and a little bit more experience, she will be a good player for us.
"Whitney gives us some speed and ability to get up and guard the ball in the backcourt," McGraw continued. "She will be able to give Skylar a little rest at times and come in to play the point. She can also shake things up defensively with a little more full court pressure. She is a great ball-handler and great passer, and she's also smart and picks things up quickly, knowing who should have the ball. She is somebody that we hope comes around early and is ready. It is a difficult position for a freshman to come in and run the team, especially when you are replacing someone like Skylar, but I think she is capable."
One full season -- that's all Devereaux Peters needed to make a crystal clear statement that she is one of the nation's top post players. After missing portions of her first three seasons due to a pair of knee injuries and related surgeries, the fifth-year senior from Chicago was running at full capacity in 2010-11 and it showed, as she averaged a career-high 11.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, while ranking fifth in the nation with a .593 field goal percentage and registering 10 double-doubles, the most by a Notre Dame player in seven years.
As if that weren't enough, Peters took her unique defensive presence to a different level last season, finishing as the only player in the country to log at least 65 steals and 65 blocked shots (she had 66 steals and 68 blocks). She also is the only returning BIG EAST player to rank among the top 15 in the conference last year in the three major defensive categories of rebounds, blocks and steals, a feat that led to her selection as the BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year (Notre Dame's first since Ruth Riley dominated that honor from 1999-2001).
Peters is coming off a highly-successful summer with the USA World University Games Team, joining Diggins and Novosel on that gold medal-winning squad. Peters was the team's top scoring reserve at 10.0 ppg., was fourth at 5.3 rpg., and ranked among the top 10 in the entire tournament with a team-high .560 field goal percentage and 1.0 bpg.)
A passionate and confident player who demands the best from herself every day, Peters is one of three team captains for the Fighting Irish this season. She also is in position to become the first Notre Dame player ever to pile up 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 blocks and 200 steals in her career.
"Devereaux was a player who achieved her potential and in one season let everyone know that she is an important part of our team," McGraw said. "She can do so much for us on the court defensively by rebounding, blocking shots and running the floor. She is also still able to score even though we are not running a lot of plays for her. She has shown probably the most significant improvement of anybody on the team, with the way she has come back from double knee surgery to the point where she is now one of the best players in the country. Just to see her achieve that potential, it's such a great feeling.
"But, for her, the job is not done," McGraw added. "She loved playing this summer (with the USA World University Games Team). She was able to compete and play well and now she has matured as a leader of our team and is someone who is ready to lead us on. She has such fun when she is playing, and I think when you look at her emotion and her passion, you see what makes her great."
With the loss of veteran frontline starter Becca Bruszewski to graduation, the door opens for sophomore Natalie Achonwa to compete for that starting spot. The native of Guelph, Ontario, showed tremendous promise as a rookie last season, averaging 6.9 points per game, while placing second on the team with 5.3 rebounds per game and a .566 field goal percentage (which would have been fourth in the BIG EAST, but she fell just shy of the minimum number of made baskets needed to qualify for the rankings).
Achonwa seemed to grow stronger and more confident as the season progressed, registering a double-double in the BIG EAST Championship final at Connecticut (12 points, game-high 10 rebounds) and nearly adding two more double-doubles in the NCAA Championship with 10 points and eight rebounds in both a second-round win over Temple and the regional semifinal victory over Oklahoma.
A veteran of the international game who is one of the rising stars in the Canadian National Team program, Achonwa earned BIG EAST All-Freshman Team honors last year and brings a balanced skill set that blends power in the post with the ability to face up defenders and hit shots from the perimeter. In addition, her maturity and experience helped ease her transition to the college game, and she is expected to be a key contributor for the Fighting Irish in 2011-12.
"Natalie has an unlimited ceiling for her game," McGraw said. "She continues to improve and she gives us a little bit of a presence around the basket, which is what we need. She is also very versatile. She can face the basket, she can guard the other team's post player and she can be a physical presence defensively. So the sky is the limit for what she can accomplish for us this season."
After battling through the lingering effects of knee surgery during the latter stages of her high school career (and a secondary surgery early this past offseason), Ariel Braker is back at full strength for Notre Dame this year and positioned to add depth to the Fighting Irish post game. The Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., resident played in 26 games as a rookie last year, tallying 1.6 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. She was a highly-efficient defensive presence for Notre Dame, making the most of her court time to grab a team-high one rebound for every 2.7 minutes played.
With long arms and good athleticism, Braker has seen her biggest impact at the defensive end early in her college career as a valuable asset in the team's traps and presses. Through summer and preseason workouts, Braker also has shown strong development on the blocks as both a scoring and rebounding threat, something that will important to Notre Dame's fortunes this year.
"When you return seven of the top eight, the playing time is going to be difficult for the people on the bench and they need to establish themselves early," McGraw noted. "Ariel gives us someone who can rebound and block shots. She has had a lot of injuries and she has been through a lot of adversity that she has faced throughout the year. She had that surgery in the offseason and she has come back healthy and now it's just a question of finding her niche. She is looking to find our needs and certainly rebounding is always a place where we need people as well as blocking shots. She could also assume a role similar to Fraderica (Miller) if she gets herself in shape."
The third member of the incoming Fighting Irish freshman class could be the most intriguing prospect on the Notre Dame roster this season. Standing 6-foot-2, Markisha Wright (Des Moines, Iowa) is a tough, physical post presence who will give the Fighting Irish extra muscle (not to mention agility) on the blocks, Wright was the driving force behind Des Moines East High School and its run to the 2011 Iowa Class 4A state title with a perfect 27-0 record. A three-time all-state selection, Wright averaged a double-double in her final prep season with 16.0 points and 15.0 rebounds per game.
"With the loss of Becca (Bruszewski) and our depth in the post, we're going to need Markisha to be ready early," McGraw said. "What's great about Markisha is that all of the things she does well, such as rebounding, being physical, scoring on the blocks, those are all things that we need. She's shown great potential during preseason workouts and as time goes on, I think she has the chance to be right there and make some important contributions for us."
It's a simple philosophy and one that McGraw has followed for many years. In order to prepare for BIG EAST play, Notre Dame has to step outside its comfort zone in the non-conference season. That means playing some of the other top programs from other high-quality leagues around the country, and competing in hostile environments against unfamiliar styles of play.
Learning from these matchups, the Fighting Irish are better prepared for the BIG EAST season, a rugged 16-game gauntlet that features nine other postseason participants (including eight NCAA qualifiers) from last season. Notre Dame has not only survived, but thrived in the conference crucible during its first 16 years in the BIG EAST, posting the second-best regular-season winning percentage in league history (.761, 201-63 record) while finishing in the top four of the BIG EAST standings 13 times in that span.
Once Notre Dame has worked its way through that conference schedule, the Fighting Irish are battle-tested and have all the tools necessary to compete in the NCAA Championship. The results there speak for themselves, as Notre Dame ranks 11th in tournament history with a .653 winning percentage (32-17 record), including nine Sweet 16 appearances, three Final Fours, two title-game berths and the 2001 national championship.
Thus, Notre Dame will stick with its scheduling philosophy in 2011-12, taking on teams from each of the nation's top six conferences (and nine of the top 13), while playing as many as 19 regular-season games against teams that qualified for postseason play last year (including 16 NCAA Championship qualifiers and four of the other seven NCAA Elite Eight participants). In addition, the Fighting Irish could play six first-time opponents during a potential 14-game non-conference slate, and may have up to a school-record 18 home games lined up inside Purcell Pavilion during the upcoming campaign, including first- and second-round games in the NCAA Championship (the third time in four years Notre Dame has hosted early-round NCAA tournament action).
Among the marquee matchups on this year's schedule are a home-and-home series with BIG EAST rival and fellow Final Four participant Connecticut (Jan. 7 at Notre Dame; Feb. 27 in Storrs, Conn.), as well as home games with Tennessee (Jan. 23) and Kentucky (Dec. 18), the latter making its first-ever visit to Purcell Pavilion.
What's more, Notre Dame will play in a pair of tournaments during the non-conference slate, starting with the Preseason Women's National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) for the fourth time in program history after winning the tournament title in 2004 and reaching the semifinals in both 1996 and 2007. The Preseason WNIT could take on an added luster should the Fighting Irish reach this year's championship game, as Baylor or UCLA are among the teams looming on the opposite side of the bracket.
Immediately after concluding the Preseason WNIT, Notre Dame heads to the Bahamas for its second trip to the Caribbean in three years (after winning the 2009 Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands). The Fighting Irish will take part in the Junkanoo Jam beginning the day after Thanksgiving (Nov. 25) with a renewal of their series against USC, while Duke and Gardner-Webb meet in the other first-round contest. The championship and consolation games then will be played the following night.
Notre Dame also is slated to make at least 11 national or regional television appearances this season, highlighted by a game on CBS for the second consecutive year (Jan. 7 at home vs. Connecticut) and six games on the ESPN family of the networks, three of which will be featured on that entity's famed Big Monday package (the second-most Big Monday appearances by any team in 2011-12).
"We wanted to challenge the team (with the schedule), thinking that we had a veteran team coming back," McGraw said. "If you want to play at the highest level, you have to play the good teams. You have to find out where you are and we are doing that early. We are playing really good teams early and we are going to find out by Dec. 1 what kind of team we are. By Jan. 1, we are going to have really good idea of where we think we are, so I think that is the key for us. We could line the schedule with teams we could beat and have a really nice record or we can go out and challenge ourselves with some games on the road and play some of the top five teams in the nation, and that's what we're going to do."
At the end of the day, only time will tell if Notre Dame can turn back the clock, retrieve those 16 minutes it lost at the end of last year's national championship game and make that charge towards the top of college basketball's mountain before planting their championship flag at the summit.