SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The list of women’s teams that have had the staying power to advance to five straight Final Fours is short: Connecticut, Stanford and LSU. Notre Dame hopes to join the club.
The second-ranked Fighting Irish (31-2) are considered a lock to receive a top seed for the fourth consecutive season when the NCAA tournament field is announced Monday. Notre Dame heads into the postseason ranked No. 2 for a third straight season, a first at the school.
Coach Muffet McGraw points to Skylar Diggins as being a key ingredient to that remarkable run, even though she graduated two years ago.
“She was a catalyst,” McGraw said. “She definitely elevated our recruiting.”
Notre Dame has been a top 10 team regularly since the 1998-99 season and won the national title behind Ruth Riley in 2001. But the Irish rose to a new level after the arrival of Diggins, who was born in South Bend.
The first girls McDonald’s All-American game was played in 2002 and Notre Dame had five of its players participate in the first eight games, including Diggins in 2009. In the six seasons since, 10 Notre Dame recruits have been selected for the showcase.
This season marks the first time all five Notre Dame starters are former McDonald’s All-Americans, with another on the bench. All are expected to return next season, when the Irish add three more.
McGraw believes playing in strong conferences also helps because it means more exposure and more appearances on television. The Irish formerly were members of the Big East, which included UConn and Rutgers, and is now a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which includes Duke, North Carolina and Louisville.
McGraw said while contending every year is a challenge, staying motivated isn’t.
“Because we haven’t won it,” she said. “All those trips to the Final Four have been great. But we’ve come away each year with, ‘We didn’t get it done this year, so we’ve got to do it next year,’ ” she said.
The Irish have had enough with next year.
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