Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 2, 2015 Issue

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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championship game and in 2013 in the de facto title tilt in the semifinals. "I'm always looking at the national championship banner," said McGraw, whose Irish are 143-10 the past four years, including a stunning 62-2 in con- ference action (not including postsea- son tournaments). "I know that there are 300 schools that would love to trade places with us, but we just aren't satis- fied. We want to take that one more step." Last year, Notre Dame was consid- ered a "year away" from closing the gap and possibly overtaking UConn in 2015-16 for two reasons. The first was the Irish would be re- turning all eight of their top players, in- cluding junior All-American guard Jew- ell Loyd. The second was the Huskies would graduate two of their top play- ers, sharp-shooting Kaleena Mosqueda- Lewis and rebounding machine/inside force Kiah Stokes. Alas, Loyd sent shockwaves through the Notre Dame program last April when she opted to enter the WNBA Draft — where she would be the first overall pick and Rookie of the Year — rather than return for her senior cam- paign. With eight former high school Mc- Donald's All-Americans on this year's roster, including all three freshmen, Mc- Graw and Co. are hardly destitute when it comes to talent. It's just that without Loyd, there isn't the established super- star to match Connecticut's 6-4 senior and reigning National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart. With Stewart back, UConn is the overwhelming favorite to win a fourth straight national title, meaning Notre Dame might be "a year away" again when it will be even more seasoned in 2016-17 when the peerless Stewart is gone. "It's a huge challenge to replace Jew- ell," McGraw said. "That's the biggest thing we really have to look at — who's going to take that shot, late in the shot clock, late in the game? We have a num- ber of options, and some really good things to work on." Just like after top-10 WNBA picks Devereaux Peters and Natalie Novosel graduated after reaching the title game in 2012. Just like after megastar Skylar Diggins' graduation in 2013. Or just like after current WNBA All-Star Kayla Mc- Bride and center Natalie Achonwa, third in the WNBA Rookie of the Year ballot- ing, graduated after 2014. Challenging Notre Dame for Final Four spots will be rising power South Carolina, which the Irish defeated 66-65 in last year's Final Four; Baylor; Louisville; and Tennessee, which wel- comes North Carolina transfer Diamond DeShields — who averaged 18 points per game as a freshman for the Tar Heels two years ago. McGraw constantly preaches that a sixth consecutive Final Four is hardly a birthright. "The one thing we always worry about is complacency," McGraw said. "You can't expect that just because we've been there every year — and all the play- ers know is getting to the Final Four — that we will get there. Some of the play- ers don't know how hard it was for the players before them to blaze that trail. Now it's a matter of us establishing the culture of making sure that they know every practice is really important."

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