SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Muffet McGraw didn't earn her Hall of Fame coaching laurels by backing away from challenges at Notre Dame.
She may be facing her biggest one yet: Replacing a starting five that came within 3.9 seconds of winning a second consecutive national championship last season. Just a few days after Baylor beat the Fighting Irish 82-81, that starting five — Jackie Young, all-time leading scorer Arike Ogunbowale, Brianna Turner, Jessica Shepard and Marina Mabrey — headed to the WNBA. Notre Dame averaged 88.6 points per game last season and out the door with those players went 82.1 of them.
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"I do love the challenge," McGraw said. "I'm still competitive. I think the expectations are off in terms of what everyone else thinks we will be. So it's fun to get in the gym and start teaching again."
Junior center Mikayla Vaughn, who averaged 3.3 points and 2.4 rebounds last season as a reserve, hears what the naysayers say about the Irish, who will go after the program's 1,000th victory when they open the season at Fordham Nov. 5.
"I think being underestimated is one of the most powerful positions you can be in," Vaughn said. "I really think we can do really, really great things."
Among the returnees are guards Katlyn Gilbert, who missed 31 games with a torn right labrum that was surgically repaired, and Abby Prohaska, a defensive ball hawk. Also back is 6-foot-4 Danielle Cosgrove. Joining them are grad transfers Marta Sniezek (Stanford) and Destinee Walker (North Carolina) and two prep All-Americans in 6-foot-2 forward Sam Brunelle and 5-foot-10 guard Anaya Peoples.
"Come March, the way coach is pushing, we're going to be competitive," said Sniezek, a point guard on the Cardinal's 2017 Final Four team.
Said Gilbert: "I think we can shock the world and win the championship."
Their coach likes to set the bar high.
"I'm never going to lower my expectations," said McGraw, whose teams have won six straight ACC regular-season titles and five ACC tourney titles, and appeared in 24 straight NCAA tournaments, including nine Final Fours.
Among the 13 players on the roster are four walk-ons, including identical twins Margaret and Catherine Murdock, a pair of 5-foot-8 sophomore guards who played at New Trier High School in suburban Chicago.
"One wears a braid, one wears a ponytail; that's how we tell them apart," McGraw joked.
November and December games include Tennessee, DePaul, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota, and a visit to longtime rival and perennial power Connecticut on Dec. 8. The 18-game ACC schedule begins Dec. 29 with Clemson.
"We're definitely going to have some hiccups early on," McGraw said. "The schedule is very, very difficult."
McGRAW'S QUICK DRAWS
"Sam (Brunelle) is our best 3-point shooter" . "Katlyn (Gilbert) should be our best player — at the end of the game we want the ball in her hands" . "Anaya (Peoples) is a great defender — she's active, she's aggressive, she's willing" . "Marta (Sniezek), as the point guard, has to be the leader on the team" . "Mikayla (Vaughn) is probably the one player out there who is doing exactly what we need her to do."
Long-time assistant Niele Ivey, a point guard on McGraw's 2001 championship team, has joined the Memphis Grizzlies.
"I told her to use her voice," said McGraw, who made a passionate speech for women's equality at the Final Four and saluted the NBA for "being ahead of the curve." Joining staff holdovers Carol Owens and Beth Cunningham is 2016 alum Michaela Mabrey. Also back on a part-time basis is Kayla McBride, a 2014 consensus All-American.
As for McGraw herself, she shows signs of wanting to move on after 32 seasons at Notre Dame.
"I really didn't want a new coach to come in and start over," the 63-year-old McGraw said. "I want to leave the program in a pretty good place. Recruiting is going well, so we'll see what the future holds. I'm not going to 70, I know that."