SOUTH BEND — When you are the defending national champion you expect to have a target on your back. You expect to have to endure every team’s best shot when they step on the court to face you.
That is attitude coach Muffet McGraw and her Notre Dame Fighting Irish women’s basketball team have going into the 2018-19 season that begins Friday night in a home contest with Harvard University
Tipoff is at 4 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.
“We know we are going to get everyone’s best game. Being the defending national champion means we have a target on our back,” McGraw said. “The team has not gotten complacent. They want to prove we can do it again. The players have been working extremely hard and are very confident going into the season.”
Last season the Irish posted a sparkling 35-3 record after executing a pair of come-from-behind wins to claim the program’s second national championship. Notre Dame edged the previously unbeaten Connecticut Huskies 91-89 in overtime in the semifinals and Mississippi State 61-58 in the finale.
The Irish rallied from a 15-point deficit midway through the third period in the championship game, winning on a 3-pointer by Arike Ogunbowale with 0.1 remaining. The title came on the 17th anniversary of Notre Dame’s first national title.
Ogunbowale also swished a game-winning trey in the victory over previously undefeated UConn.
“The offseason has been crazy, but we are definitely ready for this season,” Ogunbowale said. “Our goal is to take things game by game. First we want to win the ACC championship and then the national championship.”
There is one thing McGraw would like to change this season.
“Last year, we showed we can come-from-behind to win. This year I would like to show we can play with a lead,” the coach quipped.
Ogunbowale, now a senior, averaged 20.8 points per game a year ago and is one of four returning players who averaged in double figures. Senior Jessica Shepard averaged 15.6, junior Jackie Young 14.5 and senior Marina Mabrey 14.4.
In addition to that scoring punch, graduate student Brianna Turner returns after sitting out last season with a knee injury. She averaged 15.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest in the 2016-17 season.
“I am ready for games. I feel like a freshman again,” Turner said about the time she missed with her injury. “The knee is not hindering me. The doctors and the trainers have given me full clearance.”
McGraw knows she will have new challenges this season as she not only has scoring depth, but additional player depth as well.
“We have three or four players who are capable of scoring 30 or 40 points every night,” the coach said. “It’s a challenge and the coaching staff will be responsible for developing unselfish play. Also, we have to figure out how we are going to distribute the ball.”
The veteran coach is glad to have Turner back this season. Turner topped the ACC in blocks in 2016-17 with 86. She has a total of 263 in her career, which is second in school history behind Ruth Riley’s 370.
“We played more zone last season. It had to do with the fact we didn’t have the depth we have this season and the fact we didn’t have a shot blocker like Brianna back there,” McGraw said.
“Turner has looked fantastic. She looks exactly like she did before the injury. But I think her passion for the game has doubled.”
Young is another veteran, McGraw is looking forward to having back. The Princeton, Ind., native poured in a career-high 32 points in the national semifinal win over UConn.
“Jackie proved what she can do in the UConn game. She has the most complete game of anyone,” McGraw said. “Jackie also has the ability to do the little things, like making the extra pass or taking a charge.”
Other returnees for the Irish are senior Maureen Butler (0.8 ppg), junior Kaitlin Cole (0.7), sophomore Danielle Patterson (2.9) and sophomore Mikayla Vaughn (4.3).
The Irish have a talented freshman class that includes Kaitlin Cole, Danielle Cosgrove, Katlyn Gilbert, Jordan Nixon and Abby Prohaska. The group includes two McDonald’s All-Americans — Gilbert and Nixon — and was ranked No. 7 by ESPN.
“The challenge for me is going to see who gets in the game. We have a number of players that can play, but all have to earn their time,”the coach said. “All of them have to be ready to go at anytime. You never know what can happen. The veterans understand this concept and have worked with the youngsters on it.”
Greg Keim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 326. Follow Greg on Twitter @gkeim_TGN