When the Notre Dame women's basketball team lost to Stanford in the Sweet Sixteen on Friday, the feeling was unfamiliar. The last time the team lost in this round was in 2010, and fans had become accustomed to Final Four appearances. As the initial surprise and disappointment wears off, however, there is time for some reflection. In a year full of ups and downs and several surprises, this team accomplished a great deal. Let's take a look back at the last year.
Despite a loss to Connecticut in the National Championship game last April, the team's future looked bright. The majority of the team that had won ACC regular season and tournament titles was expected to return intact, including the five starters. A strong three-player recruiting class would be joining them. Ali Patberg, Marina Mabrey, and Arike Ogunbowale would add more options for an already strong team.
The first big surprise of the new season came the day after the loss in the title game. Junior All-American Jewell Loyd announced her intention to forgo her senior season and declare for the WNBA draft. Because she would turn 22 during the calendar year when the draft was being held, she was eligible to declare; however, the move was unexpected. Loyd was selected first overall in the WNBA draft and over the summer played in her first season and was named Rookie of the Year. Her departure meant that head coach Muffet McGraw would be looking for contributions elsewhere to make up for the loss of Loyd's 19.8 points per game. Fans received better news just days later when Madison Cable was approved to join the team for a fifth year after sitting out her freshman season with injuries in both feet.
When fall arrived and the beginning of the new season drew closer, the three new freshmen began practicing with the team and showed signs of promise. Then in early November, just days before the team's first exhibition game, more bad news: freshman point guard Ali Patberg had torn her ACL in practice and would miss the entire season. A consensus high-school All American and the MaxPreps National High School Player of the Year, Patberg had been expected to shoulder some of the load at the point guard position, backing up Lindsay Allen and freeing her to take more of a scoring role. That plan would have to be set aside.
On November 7th, the Irish opened their season with a 101-52 win in an exhibition game against Wayne State. They were off to a strong start and the two uninjured freshmen were able to see playing time right away. On November 23rd, in just the fifth game of her collegiate career, Marina Mabrey collected her first triple-double (the fifth in school history) and a school-record 12 steals in a 110-52 win over Valparaiso.
As the season seemed to be off to a great start despite the loss of Loyd, the injury to Patberg, and a lingering Achilles issue that led to junior Taya Reimer missing two early games, the team traveled to the Bahamas to participate in the Junkanoo Jam. During a practice on Thanksgiving Day, sophomore Brianna Turner injured her shoulder and was reported to be out indefinitely. Meanwhile, Reimer was reported as day-to-day as she continued to struggle with the Achilles.
After a 22-point performance in an overtime game against UCLA, Madison Cable was named the MVP at the Junkanoo Jam and the team returned home to face a particularly demanding slate of games. In the course of a week they would face Ohio State, Connecticut, and DePaul. Now they would have to play these games without Turner, and with Reimer in a limited role. With little time to make adjustments to these changes, the Irish came out ready to battle.
On December 2nd they won a close contest against Ohio State 75-72. Three days later, they made the trip to Connecticut to face the powerhouse Huskies on their home court. Without Turner, the Irish changed their approach and turned to a small lineup. The Irish made an incredible 13 of 20 3-pointers and freshman Marina Mabrey led the team with 23 points, but it was not enough to win. The Irish fell to Connecticut 91-81. Four days later they came back with a close 95-90 win over a well-coached DePaul team.
In mid-December, it became clear that the surprises were not over for the Irish this season. On December 12th, news broke that junior captain Taya Reimer would be leaving the team for the rest of the season for "personal reasons," a year after she missed time for the same. In February, it was confirmed that Reimer will graduate and then transfer elsewhere to continue her basketball career.
After missing six games, Brianna Turner returned to the court in a December 21st game against St. Joseph's. She will most likely have surgery on her injured shoulder now that the season is over, but was able to play with the injury for the rest of the season.
Notre Dame opened their ACC schedule with a game against Georgia Tech on December 30th. They started the conference slate with an 85-76 win. With the various injuries and departures, the ACC schedule did not look easy this year. Fans who were accustomed to seeing more lopsided victories watched the team work hard for wins. It was not always pretty, but the team showed determination and poise. In early February, they beat Duke by 7 points and Louisville by 5, avoiding two potential stumbling blocks on their run to another ACC title.
An undefeated ACC season brought the Irish their fifth consecutive regular season conference title (two in the Big East, three in the ACC). Allen, Cable, and Turner were all named to the All-ACC First Team. Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale were both named to the ACC All-Freshman Team. Turner was named the ACC's Player of the Year, and Muffet McGraw was named the ACC Coach of the Year. On March 6th, for the third year in a row, Notre Dame won the ACC conference tournament with a 68-57 win over Syracuse (who will play in the Final Four this weekend). Since moving to the ACC, the women's basketball team has only lost one conference game and has won the regular season and tournament titles all three years. Once again this year, they were selected as a 1-seed for the NCAA Tournament, marking their 21st consecutive appearance in the tournament.
After fairly comfortable wins in the first two rounds over North Carolina A&T and Indiana, the team fell to Stanford in their seventh consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance, ending a streak of five trips to the Final Four. It was a difficult way to go out, but a little perspective shows that the team still had an excellent season and overcame more than its share of adversity. This has not gone unrecognized. In addition to the ACC end-of-year awards already mentioned, ACC Player of the Week awards during the season for Cable and Allen, and ACC Rookie of the Week awards for Mabrey and Ogunbowale, post-season honors continue to accumulate for the team and staff. McGraw has been named a finalist for the Naismith National Coach of the Year Award. Associate Coach and former player Niele Ivey was named the first WBCA Assistant Coach of the Year, and both Brianna Turner and Madison Cable have received All-American recognition.
The team will miss the talents and leadership of the three departing seniors. Michaela Mabrey, Hannah Huffman, and Madison Cable all contributed greatly to the program during their years at Notre Dame. The coaches will be looking for new leaders to step into the void they leave behind. However, Gatorade National Player of the Year Erin Boley and Naismith National Player of the Year Jackie Young will be joining the team as freshmen next year. Ali Patberg will be returning from her injury and should see her first playing time, and key players including Allen and Turner will return from this year's team. Barring too many unpleasant surprises, Notre Dame looks to be in a position to have another strong season next year.