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Posted on Thu. Apr. 10, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

‘We will be back,’ Irish women vow

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw kept her message simple when she addressed a somber locker room following Tuesday’s NCAA tournament championship game loss.

“We are all going to hold our heads up high,” McGraw said. “We will be back.”

After reaching the Final Four the previous three seasons and missing out on the ultimate prize, the Irish felt fairly certain this was their year. They zoomed through their schedule, as five victories became nine, and nine became 18, and 18 became 37.

Only one game remained, and still no losses. It was meant to be, right?

“You can never be sure,” guard Madison Cable said.

That distasteful final score – Connecticut 79, Notre Dame 58 – will linger for years to come.

So will the better memories.

After point guard Skylar Diggins graduated last spring, few pundits expected a year like this. Whether 37-1 or 38-0, most would agree the Irish exceeded expectations.

A week ago, McGraw referred to this season as “unbelievable” because she said no one thought they would make the Final Four.

“We wanted to prove people wrong and did,” guard Jewell Loyd said. “People thought we would actually be worse when we lost Skylar. We had a great season.”

There were many other accomplishments.

After leaving behind the Big East, the Irish won the Atlantic Coast Conference in their inaugural tour.

Notre Dame was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row and fourth time overall.

“It was a fun journey,” McGraw said.

“It was great to go through the ACC. A lot of new things, a lot of new challenges, and we met them all. That was really, really great. We rose to the occasion.”

Leading were seniors Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker, a class that concluded storied careers.

“Amazing,” McGraw said. “The four Final Fours, to go through this season undefeated, most wins in school history – that’s a pretty high bar to keep up with.”

McGraw said the Irish will miss their leadership.

“They changed the culture,” she said. “Leadership will be a big question for us. Lindsay Allen was able to rely on the seniors. Next year we’re going to expect a lot more from her.”

Allen, a freshman point guard, and Loyd, a sophomore All-American at shooting guard, will be Notre Dame’s only returning starters next season.

Along with freshman Taya Reimer, who was a high school All-American and is expected to move into a starting role, they will form the core of a team that now views the Final Four as an annual expectation.

The Irish are confident they can be great again, especially with the arrival of highly rated prep star Brianna Turner.

“We have a good recruiting class coming in,” McGraw said. “With Turner, we’re excited to add a shot blocker. We’ll come back really strong.”

That’s likely with a star like Loyd, who should be a preseason national player of the year pick.

“We’re going to be better for this,” Loyd said.

“We feel bad we couldn’t get a ring for the seniors. We have a lot of things to look forward to.”

cgoff@jg.net


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