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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Irish women made a legacy on the hardwood at Notre Dame and beyond

Editor's Note: Sports Editor Aidan Thomas contributed to this article.

When the Notre Dame Women’s Basketball team was founded in 1977, five years after the passage of Title IX, there was no Women’s National Basketball Association and women’s sports, in general, received little attention. In the 45 years since then, the team has made a name for itself, appearing in 26 NCAA tournaments and nine Final Fours, as well as winning two national titles in 2001 and 2018. 

The Irish women’s team started their program’s history off well with a record of 49-20 in their first three years under coach Sharon Petro. Then, under the coaching of Mary DiStanislao for seven years, Notre Dame totaled 115 wins to just 79 losses. DiStanislao led the Irish to a pair of North Star Conference titles. However, the program truly took off into a new era in 1987. That’s when an Irish legend in the making, Muffet McGraw, took over the program. Under McGraw’s leadership, the Irish won 21+ games in five of her first seven seasons, also qualifying for a postseason tournament five times. They won the Midwestern Collegiate Conference five times, going 15-1 or better on three occasions. They finished second in the two years they faltered. 

McGraw’s squad jumped to the Big East in 1995, and they went 32-4 over their first two seasons in conference play. That second year, the Irish went 17-1 in Big East play and made a run all the way to the Final Four — their first in program history. Notre Dame continued to knock on the door and in 2000-2001, the Irish broke through. For the second time in program history, Notre Dame won 30+ games, notching a 34-2 overall record. Ruth Riley and Niele Ivey led that squad through a blistering NCAA Tournament run, as the team knocked out longtime rival UConn in the Final Four and edged in-state opponent Purdue for the national title. 

McGraw’s successful tenure continued throughout the 21st century, but she hit her peak dominance in her final decade of coaching. Beginning with the 2010-11 season, Notre Dame ripped off a streak of 30+ years of nine straight years. That stretch was highlighted by six Final Fours, including five straight. The sizzling streak also spanned the end of the Irish’s Big East tenure and the start of their time in the ACC. They won the final two Big East titles before taking over the Atlantic Coast. There, they triumphed over the conference in six straight seasons. However, after knocking on the door so many times, losing in the national title game four times in five years, the Irish finally delivered one final national title to their head coach in 2018. The heroics of guard Arike Ogunbowale will be forever remembered as she hit a pair of buzzer-beaters in the Final Four, lifting Notre Dame to upsets over UConn and Mississippi State and, ultimately, the national title. 

Now, after a brief rebuilding period, the Irish are back onto the national scene. One of those 2001 heroes, Niele Ivey, is at the helm and she led the Irish back to the NCAA Tournament last year. There, they went to the Sweet 16 and led top-seeded NC State into the final minute of the contest. Eventually, the Irish fell 66-63. Notre Dame’s consistent success over the years can be seen not only in their accolades at the collegiate level but now also in the WNBA, where the Irish have established a robust presence. 

Irish in the WNBA

With the creation of the WNBA 26 years ago, Notre Dame Women’s Basketball alumnae have continued to dominate in the WNBA. There are currently 10 former Notre Dame basketball players in the WNBA. Furthermore, four former Irish were voted WNBA All-Stars in the 2022 season. This gives Notre Dame, tied with UConn, the most former players on the All-Star roster.

Skylar Diggins-Smith, who led the Irish to three Final Fours, has continued her dominance in the WNBA. Ranked ninth by ESPN, Diggins-Smith essentially carried the Phoenix Mercury with teammate Brittney Griner (who is currently detained in Russia). Another Notre Dame alum Brianna Turner helped the Mercury reach the playoffs this season.

Jackie Young, a member of the 2018 NCAA Championship team, may be headed for another national title with the Las Vegas Aces. Young was the first overall pick in the 2019 draft after going pro a year early, which is almost unheard of in women’s basketball. After a breakout season, she is beginning to prove why. As the 13th-ranked player in the league, Young has increased her scoring output by 5 points per game from last season. She just faced up against the Seattle Storm and fellow Notre Dame alum Jewell Loyd in the semifinals of the WNBA tournament. Ultimately, the Aces won in an overtime victory. Loyd stands just one spot behind Young in the rankings at number 14, and the two posted almost identical stat lines this season.

Arike Ogunbowale joins Diggins-Smith, Young and Loyd in the top 25 at number 17. Anyone who watched Ogunbowale hit buzzer beaters in both the Final Four and national championship games of the 2018 national championship knows she deserves her spot in the top 25. A natural scorer, Ogunbowale averaged almost 20 points this season. She and fellow 2018 national champ Marina Mabrey are teammates once again on the Dallas Wings. The duo, who call themselves “Marike” helped Dallas to a playoff this season.

These Irish legends, along with other Notre Dame alumnae Kayla McBride, Jessica Shepard, Natalie Achonwa and Lindsay Allen, who are now all teammates on the Minnesota Lynx, are proof of the Notre Dame Women’s Basketball teams’ status as a powerhouse. With Coach Ivey and the current team looking to continue that legacy, it’s safe to say that we can look forward to seeing more Irish alumnae in the WNBA in the coming years.