SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Wait-til-next-year season came stunningly early for Notre Dame and coach Muffet McGraw.
The perennial bridesmaids, who lost in four of the past five national championship games along with the semifinals in 2013, were upset 90-82 by Stanford on Friday night in a regional semifinal. It was only the second loss by Notre Dame in the past three seasons to a team not named Connecticut, and the loss marked its earliest exit from the NCAA Tournament since 2010, when Skylar Diggins was a freshman and the Irish lost to Oklahoma in overtime in the regional semifinal.
McGraw said the loss to the Cardinal didn’t ruin the season for the Irish, whose senior class won a total of 141 games – two shy of the school record set by last year’s class.
“Our seniors had a great season, a great year and we’ve been on the other side of this, and now it’s our turn to go home early and work on next year,” McGraw said.
The loss ended Notre Dame’s attempt to join UConn as the only team to advance to at least six straight Final Fours. It came hours after the Notre Dame men beat Wisconsin 61-56 in the East Region semifinal in Philadelphia, marking the first time since 1990 that the Irish men, coached then by Digger Phelps, advanced further in the NCAA Tournament than the women, who then were in just their third season under McGraw.
This year’s team was probably the least talented of the Irish in recent years after last season’s leading scorer, Jewell Loyd, left school early to enter the WNBA and captain Taya Reimer, who averaged 10.2 points and 6.1 rebounds, left the team in December for personal reasons. Despite those defections, this year’s squad won 26 straight games – the third-longest winning streak in school history, and its only regular-season loss was at Connecticut while the Irish were without leading scorer Brianna Turner because of a shoulder injury.
McGraw said her message to her players in the locker room after the loss to Stanford was not to put their heads down.
“We’ve had a great season,” she said. “We’ve had a nice run, and hopefully that will motivate us to come back next year.”
Expectations will be high with five of the six leading scorers returning, led by Turner, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year who averaged 14.6 points and 7.3 rebounds. Two other starters, point guard Lindsay Allen (9.3 points, 5.8 assists) and forward Kathryn Westbeld (7.9 points, 5.6 rebounds) also return, as do freshmen reserves Arike Ogunbowale, who averaged 11.4 points, and Marina Mabrey, who averaged 10.7 points.
The Irish lose Madison Cable, their second-leading scorer at 13.7 points, and Michaela Mabrey, who averaged 6.8 points. But Notre Dame adds 6-foot guard Jackie Young of Princeton, Indiana, who set the state’s high school scoring record and was named the Naismith National High School Player of the Year, and 6-foot-2 forward Erin Boley of Hodgenville, Kentucky, who was named Gatorade National High School Player of the Year.
The Irish also will get back Ali Patberg, Indiana’s Miss Basketball last season, who missed this season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during a preseason practice.
The Irish weren’t the only top seed to be upset Friday night. South Carolina was beaten 80-72 by Syracuse. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer believes the upsets are a good sign for women’s basketball.
“I think it points to more parity,” she said. “It points to more quality players and programs – universities recognizing, `Wow, this women’s basketball is a great thing and supporting women’s basketball at a higher level.'”
For the Irish, the goal next season will be what it always is: to get back to the Final Four and win their first national championship since 2001.