Notre Dame women back to work after deep NCAA run

(Eds: With AP Photos.)

Muffett McGraw has had talented teams at Notre Dame before. Her Fighting Irish squads have made deep NCAA tournament runs and been highly ranked.

But after losing to Texas A&M in the national championship game last April, McGraw acknowledged Wednesday that her team will be swimming in uncharted waters this season in several big ways.

Not only are the expectations raised, but McGraw’s team is in the spotlight like never before. Star guard Skylar Diggins has more than 190,000 followers on her Twitter account and, to McGraw, seems a likely candidate to become the face of women’s college basketball.

”When we had Ruth Riley in 2001, the media was so much less,” McGraw said. ”There wasn’t Twitter and Facebook and we were an underdog to win it, anyway. I don’t think we have had anybody that can compare, unless you look at one of our (football) quarterbacks as somebody that maybe you could compare with, but she has really outshone them right now, too, with her following so we are really in uncharted territory and we will figure it out as we go along.”

Last season, Notre Dame (31-8) became the first team to beat Tennessee and Connecticut in the same NCAA tournament, reached its first title game in a decade and re-established itself as a team to be reckoned with in the Big East.

The team returned most of its nucleus, losing only one regular contributor in senior Becca Bruszewski. Besides Diggins, the Irish welcome back Devereaux Peters, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year; and guard Natalie Novosel, Notre Dame’s top scorer at 15.1 points per game.

McGraw, now in her 25th year coaching in South Bend, also has some young, talented players coming in and likely enough firepower to make another title run.

”This is the first time we have had such a successful year and then returned quite a few of our players,” McGraw said. ”(When we won the national championship) in 2001, we had a lot of senior class that graduated, so I am kind of interested in seeing how this team will handle it. We had a chip on our shoulder the whole season. This year it is a bit of a different attitude. It is one of we know where we want to go and it is a lot of intensity, but there is a great big target on our back that we have not had to handle too much in the past.”

Most of the focus will be on Diggins, the junior star who makes everything go. She tried to pass off the pressure.

”It was cool at first,” she said Wednesday. ”But now I think I’m like cold oatmeal. For me it is all about how I represent my family, this team, and the Notre Dame community.”

McGraw said the school is limiting Diggins’ availability for interviews, though she said her point guard handled the pressure well last year.

The loss to Texas A&M will be the big motivating factor this season, according to McGraw.

”It still hurts,” she said. ”We have some unfinished business is how we are looking at it.”

She noted that Diggins, Peters and Novosel all won a world championship in the World Games over the summer and didn’t have much time to rest.

”But they still all have the edge (to win) and they are trying to get the rest of the team to get that edge,” McGraw said. ”They are really intense at practice. Last year we were pretty intense, but this year it is almost obsessive with these three.”