Tampa, Fla. — It’s been a somewhat difficult road back to the title game for Muffet McGraw and Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish, who face Baylor on Sunday night for the NCAA title, came into the season as the favorites to repeat as champions, with nearly everyone back from last season’s team. McGraw admitted that with the lofty expectations, the Irish weren’t handling the pressure well early in the year and, most importantly, weren’t having any fun.
“We came into the season with all that on us, No. 1, defending champs,” she said. “Sometimes defending champs aren’t really because they don’t have their team back. But we did. We truly were the defending champs. It was a burden.”
That changed after a meeting right before Christmas.
“We all felt like it was way too businesslike. We weren’t enjoying it enough,” McGraw said. “I think from then on we started to enjoy it more, they started to enjoy it a lot more. I still couldn’t. It’s not a celebration when you’re supposed to win, and you win by 20. Then you’re like, ‘We didn’t play well enough.’ Then you start getting really picky. That was my problem most of the year.”
There was a lot less expected last year when the Irish won their first title since 2001 because the team had lost four players to season-ending injuries over the course of the year.
A win over Baylor would put McGraw and the Irish in an exclusive club. They would become the fourth school to win consecutive titles, joining Southern California, Tennessee and UConn.
To do it, the Irish need to beat Baylor, which is going for its first title since 2012. Kim Mulkey’s team beat the Irish for that championship, 80-61, capping off a record 40-0 season.
Mulkey can appreciate how hard it is to repeat as champions. The year after the Lady Bears won their last title, she returned most of the team and they were upset by Louisville in the Sweet 16.
“It’s hard. It’s so hard to win championships, you can be the favorite and not win them,” Mulkey said. “I’ve been the favorite and not won as there are no guarantees in this business. That’s why you cherish the moments when you can.”
Sunday’s game will mark the eighth time in the past 20 years that there have been two female head coaches in the title game but only the second time since 2008. The last time was in 2012 with these same coaches.
Here are some other tidbits for Sunday night’s game:
Brianna Turner has 21 blocks so far in the tournament, which is seventh all-time for a single season. She can move up to fourth with two against Baylor, moving her past Rebecca Lobo, Courtney Parris and Brittney Griner. Griner holds the top two spots on the list with 40 in 2010 and 31 in 2012.
“I thought Brianna Turner was absolutely outstanding on defense,” McGraw said after Turner had five blocks against UConn. “She now has the blocked shot record at Notre Dame, beating Ruth Riley. So proud of her. She really single-handedly kept us in the game the first half. She had so many key blocked shots.”
Breaking a tie
Mulkey and McGraw have two championships each. The winner of the title game will move into sole possession of third place on the all-time list behind Geno Auriemma (11) and Pat Summitt (8).
Battle of the boards
Rebounding might be the key to deciding who wins the national championship this year. Both teams have dominant inside players. Baylor’s twin towers are 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown and 6-4 Lauren Cox. The Irish counter with Turner and Jessica Shepard in the post. The Irish outrebounded UConn 54-37 in the semifinals, including a 22-11 edge on the offensive glass. The Lady Bears had only a 38-33 advantage in their win over Oregon.
“If you go back to last night’s game, I thought two areas we were not very good at early: turning the ball over, just uncharacteristic turnovers for us in transition when there was no need to, and then offensive boards. They were getting more offensive boards and second-chance opportunities than we were,” Mulkey said. “You know when you play Notre Dame, Shepard and Turner are capable of doing that. It’s going to be a battle.”
NCAA women's final
Baylor vs. Notre Dame
Tip-off: 6 p.m., Sunday, Tampa, Fla.
Records: Baylor (36-1); Notre Dame (35-3)
Notable: Notre Dame will be looking to join UConn, Tennessee and Southern Cal in winning consecutive national championships during the NCAA era. It will also be the first championship game since 2012 when both coaches — Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey — are women.