Ir­ish look to join elite com­pany

Only 3 schools have claimed back-to-back cham­pi­onships

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FINAL FOUR - By Doug Feinberg


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 Con­necti­cut.

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 last 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:

Swats: 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.”

#1 Notre Dame vs. #1 Bay­lor 6 p.m. Sun­day, ESPN

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