Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw watches her team practice for tonight’s game at Savage Arena against Arizona State. The Fighting Irish will try to improve to 34-0.
They have played 33 games and won 33 games. The Notre Dame women’s basketball team is approaching rarefied air. Seven times in the last three decades has an undefeated team won the NCAA championship, so you can imagine the expectations now swirling around the Fighting Irish.
You’d think it must weigh on them a bit. Coach Muffet McGraw thinks you must be wrong.
“We don’t ever talk about how many games we’ve won, we don’t ever talk about our record, we don’t talk about [having] to win,” McGraw said Sunday at Savage Arena.
Still, a win tonight against Arizona State (23-9) in a second-round NCAA contest would represent another step toward a ballyhooed potential meeting with fellow unbeaten Connecticut for the national title.
The Irish had their way, from start to finish, during a 93-42 first-round romp Saturday past Robert Morris.
Of course, they’ve had their way a lot lately.
In its last seven games, the region’s top seed owns five wins over top 15-ranked opponents, all by double figures, and by an average margin of 22.2 points. So there’s a lot of pressure on Notre Dame’s opponents to be near-perfect if only to be competitive.
“I think they are as good as any team I have ever prepared for,” Sun Devils coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “The efficiency of this team is incredible game after game [and] what they have been able to do with a really tough schedule, probably tougher than any in the country.
“Their percent [shooting] from the field with that schedule is pretty fantastic. To be plus-10 on the boards with that schedule, I mean, that’s a team that usually goes to the Final Four or wins the national championship.”
As Turner Thorne alluded, the Irish lead the nation in field goal percentage (.514), while opponents have shot at a .374 tune. Their rebounding margin is just a click under 10 per game (42.3 per game to 32.6).
If there is any pressure that comes from being so good and so successful — from being penned, not penciled, into the Final Four — it is the type that Notre Dame’s players claim to welcome.
“Pressure is kind of like nerves,” said 6-foot-3 senior forward Natalie Achonwa, who hails from Guelph, Ont. “We take away from that when we practice as hard as we do and [because] we have a coaching staff that prepares us as well as they do. The hours that they put in and deliver the film and the scouting report they do for us takes away our pressure.
“When you know what plays they're gonna run and the tendencies of the other team, it allows us to go out and play basketball and have fun.”
Between the occasional chicken toss — the rubber kind, not what comes in a bucket, unless you get a bad bucket — and wiffle ball games and other forms of what McGraw calls “comic relief,” the Irish are indeed having fun.
“I don't think we feel pressure,” Notre Dame’s coach, in her 27th season in South Bend, said. “I think we feel that we're gonna find a way to win. … I think we look at each other and know that we're not in it alone we don't have to carry the load alone. We have a lot of people who can score, a lot of people that can defend. We rely on each other. We trust in each other.
“I think when you have that, it's easier to relax and play. And have some fun. I think that's really important for this team. I don't want them thinking about it.”
The latter may not be something she can totally control. Her players read, watch, listen, and hear all the noise that surrounds their season. And, maybe, they even know a little about what, for them, might seem ancient history.
The last time the Irish and Arizona State met in a second-round NCAA game, in 2005, the Sun Devils erased a 13-point deficit and won 70-61.
Of course, that was another time in another place, although ASU is itching to take advantage of the chance and produce another surprise.
“I said to my staff after the [Robert Morris] game, after watching Notre Dame play, that this might be the best team that Muffet has ever had,” Turner Thorne said.
“And that’s saying a lot.”
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.