FORT WAYNE – Trips to the NCAA women’s tournament Final Four became the standard for Notre Dame the last three seasons.
Those trips, including championship game appearances in 2011 and 2012, were fueled by one of the biggest stars in Irish women’s basketball history – Skylar Diggins.
The two trips to the title game came with three first-round WNBA draft picks in the starting lineup with Diggins, who was taken with the No. 3 selection in last year’s draft, Devereaux Peters, who was selected No. 3 in 2012, and Natalie Novosel, who was taken at No. 8 in 2012.
The loss of three top players in two years and a move from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference raised questions about what Notre Dame could accomplish this season.
I think a lot of people counted us out in the beginning of the year, especially with losing Sky, Irish guard Kayla McBride said.
Those people were wrong.
Notre Dame finished the regular season undefeated for the first time in program history, and the No. 2 Irish (29-0) are the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament and play No. 9 seed Florida State (20-10) in today’s quarterfinals.
The Seminoles defeated No. 8 seed Miami (16-14) 72-67 in overtime Thursday.
Notre Dame’s success this year was fueled by the senior class of McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker as they stepped out of the shadows of their former star teammates.
K-Mac, Ace (Achonwa) and I, we came in with the mentality this is our last year, what type of team do you want to be? Braker said. You have to get everybody on board early, and that is what we did.
We knew how we were going to be, and even when people doubted us, we kind of brushed it off. We knew how we were going to be.
The Irish became a team that ran roughshod over their new league, and they did it all after the last of the team’s former Big Three, Diggins, graduated.
I think we depended a lot on Sky last year to do everything. I think this year it is coming from a lot of different places, McBride said.
We have a freshman point guard (Lindsay Allen), a great bench that has stepped up for us. Everybody has had to do a little more, and I think everybody has. I think that is the reason we have been so successful, because we have so many weapons on our team, and we have some people who are willing to step up.
With everybody stepping up, the seniors matched the most wins by a class in program history at 130 set last season by Diggins and Kaila Turner.
Achonwa, Braker and McBride have a four-year record of 130-14.
Diggins and Turner were 130-20.
I’m so glad they were able to get the record of most wins in a four-year career, because they’ve really earned it, coach Muffet McGraw told reporters after Notre Dame closed the regular season with an 84-60 win at North Carolina on Sunday.
This threesome has been pretty amazing. They’ve come a long way from their freshman year. They’ve worked hard, together. They’ve given us great leadership, and they’ve given us great performances on the court.
I think the attitude that they’ve gotten the rest of the team to buy into, the work ethic, and what Notre Dame basketball is all about. They’re great ambassadors for our program.