Surprising Notre Dame still unbeaten thanks to a mix of frosh and vets
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- When Muffet McGraw was just starting out as a coach, she would go through the schedule before the season and try to predict her team's record for that year. She was pretty good at it.
The great prognosticator admits there was no way she would have envisioned the unbeaten start Notre Dame is off to this season. The second-ranked Irish (19-0) are one of two undefeated teams in women's basketball along with rival Connecticut.
With a strong group returning and a talented freshmen class, the Irish were expected to be good this year. There was no way to tell how they would do without Skylar Diggins, who had been the heart and soul of the team during her four years at the school.
The Irish have answered every challenge so far, en route to the second-best start in school history, trailing only the 2000-01 team that started 23-0 en route to the program's only national championship.
"We just take it one game at a time," McGraw said. "Try to get better as the season goes along."
The current winning streak is the fifth-longest in school history and third time in four seasons that Notre Dame has won that many games in a row. More impressively, the Irish have won 30 consecutive regular-season road games.
While the Irish had a relatively easy schedule to start the season, they have been in the midst of one of the most difficult stretches in the country. They beat both No. 11 Tennessee and No. 8 Maryland on the road over the past seven days and will visit No. 3 Duke on Sunday.
"I think it's a challenge for us," senior Kayla McBride said. "We're still a young team although we do have three seniors. It's going to be great for us down the stretch with the NCAA tournament, ACC tournament, I think that we've risen to the challenge so far but we have to get better."
Against Tennessee, the Irish rallied from an early 12-point hole to beat the Lady Vols.
"We're veterans," McGraw said after the Tennessee game. "I thought we're going to learn a good lesson, win or lose. It's going to help us down the road ... We hadn't really seen anything quite this big this year. I thought it was just a great opportunity for us to see where we are."
Despite the undefeated record, Notre Dame hasn't been perfect. Against Maryland on Monday night — with Diggins watching from behind the Irish bench — Notre Dame jumped out to a 22-point first half lead but allowed the Terrapins to rally. The Irish had to scramble to salvage the 87-83 win.
"If it's possible to be disappointed after a loss, I would say that's how I'm feeling," McGraw said. "I thought we completely lost our poise, which is so unusual for us. We have a (22-point lead) in the first half with two of our best players on the bench (Natalie Achonwa and McBride with two fouls each), and we couldn't sustain it."
Still, the Irish were able to come away with another victory thanks to sophomore Jewell Loyd, who scored a career-best 31 points, including seven of the team's final nine.
"It showed a lot with us just to be able to push back," McBride said. "I think we were doing so many things unlike us, especially late in the second half. ... I think at the end when we needed a bucket, we were able to execute the way we were comfortable executing which is why we were able to pull it out in the end."