SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wants the Fighting Irish to take the same approach this season as they did last year when the they lost the best player in school history and responded with their best regular season.
”The loss of Skylar Diggins was a huge one for our program, she’s just such an amazing player,” McGraw said. ”We came in and decided, `If we’re going to win, here’s what we need to do: Everybody needs to do more.”’
The Irish won their first 37 games and captured the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and conference titles and made it to the national championship game, losing 79-58 to rival Connecticut. This season, the younger Irish are looking for everybody to do more to make up for the losses of Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa.
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That includes 5-10 guard Jewell Loyd, a unanimous selection on The Associated Press preseason All-American team. She led the Irish in scoring at 18.6 points and was second with 6.5 rebounds a game last year as a sophomore. But she wasn’t always Notre Dame’s first option when it came to scoring or the focus of opposing defenses. She will be this season for the No. 3 Irish.
”I think it makes it fun for the game. That’s what you look for. You look for one-on-one competition. You look at how to beat the other team,” she said. ”That’s something I look forward to and I’m excited for it.”
McGraw said she’s also expecting bigger contributions from point guard Lindsay Allen, who started all 38 games and averaged 6.2 points and 3.9 assists, forward Taya Reimer, who averaged 7.4 points and 4.6 rebounds, and guard Michaela Mabrey, who averaged 8.6 points and made 42.1 percent of her 3-point attempts.
”We’re going to be a team where we have a lot of people who can do a lot of things,” McGraw said.
The Irish add three highly rated recruits, 6-3 forward Brianna Turner, who was named the national high school athlete of the year, 6-2 forward Kathryn Westbeld and guard Mychal Johnson. McGraw said the challenge for her is fitting the pieces together.
”We still have a lot of question marks, so I think we’re going to take some bumps early. I don’t think we’re going to be as smooth, I don’t think we’re going to look as good as we did last year,” she said.
But McGraw is expecting the Irish to again challenge for an ACC title, where coaches in the preseason poll picked them as the favorite, and to contend again for a national championship.
”We have been so close for the last four years. I think while we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, we really want to take that next step,” McGraw said. ”I think that’s what this team is looking at, as young as they are.”
Things to watch as the Irish head into a new season:
PLAYING BIG: The Irish have six players on their roster listed as 6-foot-2 or taller, one more than last season. They had two just two seasons ago. ”We have the most depth in the post that we’ve had in a long time,” McGraw said.
PRESSING ISSUES: McGraw is hoping Turner’s height and athleticism will allow Notre Dame to return to the pressing style defense that was so successful when it had Devereaux Peters several years ago. ”She can really cause some havoc up there,” McGraw said.
LOCKER-ROOM VOICE: A common theme in Notre Dame’s Final Four teams was a leader to provide a strong voice in the locker room. In 2011 it was forward Becca Bruszewski. Diggins provided that leadership the next two seasons. Last year it was Achonwa. McGraw isn’t sure who will provide that voice this season. ”I don’t think anybody has that personality. I really don’t,” McGraw said. ”We’re trying to groom them.”
HOME-COURT ADVANTAGE: The Irish are 62-4 at home the past four seasons, a winning percentage of 94 percent. They’ve been even better on the road the past three seasons with a record of 43-2 (95.5 percent).
FINAL FOUR REDUX: The Irish faced Maryland in the NCAA semifinals last season and UConn in the title game. The Irish will face the same two teams in a span of three days in December. The Irish play Maryland in Fort Wayne on Dec. 3, and then host the Huskies on Dec. 6.