Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw having rare off season

Notre Dame has 7-14 record, but coach says she can right ship

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Muffet McGraw

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw talks with her team during a timeout in an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in South Bend, Ind. Louisville won 86-54.

Robert Franklin/AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Pat Riley’s famous quote about the only two mental states of coaching — “winning and misery” — has been proved true once again this basketball season at Notre Dame.

Muffet McGraw, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, has absolutely nothing to prove in her 33rd year at the helm of a two-time national champion women’s basketball program. And yet this losing season, marked by injury and on-court breakdowns, both physical and mental, has clearly taken a toll.

“I’ve got to do better,” she said tearfully after a 90-56 home loss to North Carolina State on Jan. 12. “I feel like I can fix it, but I didn’t.”

That embarrassing defeat, which came during this skid of 12 losses in 15 games for the Fighting Irish, followed a now-familiar formula: Questionable shot selection, coupled with optional defense, punctuated by an array of sideline grimaces and screams by the proud woman wielding the director’s baton. 

A few nights later, the 64-year-old McGraw received a commiserative call from fellow Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams at North Carolina. The two spent 20 minutes on the phone, comparing notes and basically venting, McGraw said, about this season that had gone sideways for a pair of basketball geniuses with a combined five NCAA national championships. 

Sending her entire starting five into the WNBA as record-setting draftees last spring bought McGraw zero leeway in the season that followed, at least in her eyes. Losing two key reserves (Danielle Patterson and Jordan Nixon) to transfer and two more key contributors (Mikayla Vaughn and Abby Prohaska) to early-season injury or illness provided no soft landing, either.

Niele Ivey, her former national champion point guard and lead recruiter who spent the last 17 years at Notre Dame, also left to become an assistant coach with the NBA’s Grizzlies. 

Yet for McGraw, author of a .772 winning percentage at Notre Dame and six NCAA title-game appearances in the past nine seasons, there is only winning and misery. 

What has it been like for Mike Brey, her men’s basketball counterpart, to watch McGraw suffer amid a 7-14 start that included five straight home losses for the first time in the program’s 43-year history? 

“She never has ’em, right?” Brey said of this prolonged downturn. “She never has ’em.” 

He shook his head at the unthinkable. McGraw’s previous eight teams lost a total of 23 games — an average of 2.9 per season.

“We’re great friends, and I certainly can relate,” Brey said. “We’ve crossed paths and shared and talked. What’s been great working here for 20 years is only the two of us sit in the head-coach seat and kind of feel the vibe and the ups and the downs.”

Sharing space in the 77,000-square-foot Rolfs Athletics Hall, a state-of-the-art basketball practice and training facility that opened last summer, has brought the two programs even closer together.

“You try to reach out to each other, and we continue to do that,” Brey said. “I know she’s got so many new faces. I don’t even recognize them when I look down on their practice court.”

McGraw’s team, even with two graduate transfers in point guard Marta Sniezek (ex-Stanford) and Destinee Walker (ex-North Carolina), has been unrecognizable more often than not in game situations, as well.

The Irish had been leaning heavily on freshmen Anaya Peoples and Sam Brunelle, two of the nation’s top recruits, but a right shoulder injury suffered against the Wolfpack ended Peoples’ season.

When Peoples, Notre Dame’s leading rebounder as a 5-10 guard, exited against North Carolina State, the second-quarter deficit was 10 points. McGraw’s team collapsed from there, getting outscored 30-11 in the third quarter alone.

Another blowout loss came Thursday at home against No. 5 Louisville. That 86-54 loss was the third in five outings by 30 points or more for McGraw’s overmatched team. 

With Peoples out, a 20-loss season seems almost guaranteed for a program that hadn’t suffered back-to-back losses since November 2010. Consecutive losses at home hadn’t beset the Irish since January 2008. 

And yet, McGraw forges on. She mused about maybe playing more man-to-man defense, an odd comment after she spent several postgame media sessions ripping her team’s lack of defensive pride and intensity.

“I feel like we’re good enough,” she said. “I really believe we’re good enough. We just haven’t had that game where everybody plays well at the same time.”

The search for a breakthrough continues amid the misery. 

“I’m going to keep trying,” McGraw said. “I’m going to find an answer. I’m going to fix it.”

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