If any coach in this year’s Final Four knows anything about the importance of perseverance, it’s this year’s AP Coach of the Year Muffet McGraw.
Last season, before McGraw earned the Coach of the Year award for the fourth time, her seemingly solid roster took a hit when top-scoring center Brianna Turner tore her ACL in The Irish’s second round win over Purdue on March 29, 2017. Notre Dame made it as far as the Elite Eight without Turner before losing to Stanford. After that, they turned their focus on a run for the next season.
Then another blow came.
In September, Turner announced that she would be taking the 2017-18 season to get her knee back to 100 percent and would return for the 2018-19 season as a graduate student, erasing any hopes that she would be active on the roster for the 2018 NCAA tournament. Replacing Turner would be no easy feat for McGraw as the 6-3 center led the Irish with 15.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game but McGraw still had hope for her squad heading into the new season, even with the departure of ACC First Team guard Lindsay Allen for the WNBA draft.
But then, senior and freshman guards Mychal Johnson and Mikayla Vaughn suffered season-ending ACL injuries in practice early in the 2017-18 season. Again, McGraw was forced to readjust her lineup and admitted to doing so with a bit of difficulty, saying back in December how it was “so hard to understand how this keeps happening.”
Adding to the list of injured players came Lili Thompson, who suffered yet another ACL tear in January and was forced to sit out the rest of the season. With Thompson absent from the lineup, the Irish were left with a diminished roster of healthy players and what some could have considered an impossible road ahead to the NCAA tournament.
Despite all the injuries, something seemed to still click with the team throughout the season, with McGraw managing to coach Notre Dame to a 33-3 record — the only losses of the season coming at the hands of Louisville, which shares the regular season title with the Irish, and their Final Four opponent UConn.
“I think resilience is the perfect word to describe what our team is and how we got here. I think the coaches worked pretty hard at it, but I think you have to have that,” McGraw said during a press conference ahead of her team’s Final Four bout.
“You have to have a certain amount of mental toughness to get through the season, and some kids, especially this team, are tougher than normal.”
Friday, McGraw will take go head-to-head with UConn’s Geno Auriemma, who is the only coach to have more Coach of the Year awards than McGraw with nine, for a shot at the national title against the winner of Mississippi State and Louisville’s bout. Regardless of the outcome, McGraw’s award caps a season to be remembered for both her and her team.
“I think it's one of the most rewarding (seasons) — since '97, when we were a 6-seed and completely unexpected to get here — this has definitely been one where we've really worked hard for it.”