With a young team, Notre Dame exceeds expectations for Final Four appearanceIt’s become a common sight to see the Notre Dame women’s basketball team in the Final Four. This will be the fifth straight appearance for Muffet McGraw and her girls, yet each visit has ended in a loss. In three of those four, the loss came in the national championship game.
In 2011, they came the closest to tasting victory in this stretch, as Texas A&M outplayed them in the closing moments for a 76-70 win. In 2012 they ran into the undefeated buzzsaw that was Baylor and Brittney Griner, losing 80-61. And then last year in a matchup of two undefeated teams, they lost to UConn 79-58. Of note though, they were without one of their stars in Natalie Achonwa, who injured her knee in the Final Four game prior. What could have been.
So after that run,–graduating Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Ariel Braker, this team didn’t have the high expectations that the past few seasons held. But McGraw and her girls didn’t much listen to that. With seven of the 12 player on the roster underclassmen, they could have chalked the season up to a “rebuilding year” and did what they could. But that’s not Notre Dame basketball.
Granted, Notre Dame doesn’t bring in average freshman. But with a very inexperienced team, the Irish have gone 35-2 and will get a shot at Dawn Staley and her South Carolina Gamecocks for another chance at the prize. And this is a South Carolina team that for most of the season was ranked ahead of Notre Dame.
After four prior trips, McGraw has said that this is a team and a run she appreciates the most. With so many young players, she wants them to enjoy the moment, and understand that you aren’t entitled to be back. Even if recent history makes that message a bit confusing. But it wasn’t entitlement, it was earned.
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Geno Auriemma and Connecticut will continue to be the favorites at this Final Four, as they should. But the Irish have already beaten Maryland this season, and although they lost to the Huskies, they were without Brianna Turner who was injured in–you got it, the Maryland game.
Connecticut has been lucky enough to play the Irish without their top interior player in the last two meetings. Would either have made the difference between a win and a loss? Hard to say.
And while this team may have been her most unlikely to make the Final Four, it is by far one of the most deserving.