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  • Associated Press Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw led the Irish to an ACC title and their seventh Final Four in the last nine seasons in 2018-19. They lost to Baylor 82-81 in the title game.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 1:00 am

State of Notre Dame Athletics

2nd place still stings Irish women

Star-studded basketball lost title game by a point

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame Athletics Records 2018-19

Men

Baseball: 24-30, 11-13 ACC

Basketball: 14-19, 3-15 ACC

Cross Country: ACC Champions, 14th place NCAA Championships

Fencing: ACC Champions, 3rd place NCAA Championships (men's/women's combined)

Football: 12-1, reached College Football Playoff, lost Cotton Bowl

Golf: 11th place ACC Championships

Hockey: 23-14-3, 11-11-2 Big Ten, Big Ten Tournament Champions, reached NCAA Tournament regional final

Lacrosse: 9-7, 2-2 ACC, reached NCAA Tournament second round

Soccer: 11-7-3, 4-3-1 ACC, reached College Cup quarterfinals

Swimming and diving: 6th place ACC Championships, 36th place NCAA Championships

Tennis: 17-15, 5-7 ACC, reached NCAA Tournament

Track and field: 6th place ACC Indoor Championships

Women

Basketball: 35-4, 14-2 ACC, ACC Tournament Champions, NCAA Tournament Runner-Up

Cross Country: 2nd place ACC Championships, 8th place NCAA Championships

Fencing: ACC Champions, 3rd place NCAA Championships (men's/women's combined)

Golf: 11th place ACC Championships

Lacrosse: 14-5, 5-2 ACC, reached NCAA Tournament Round of 16

Rowing: 4th place ACC Championship

Soccer: 8-10, 4-6 ACC

Softball: 37-18, 18-6 ACC, reached NCAA Regionals

Swimming and diving: 4th place ACC Championships, 41st place NCAA Championships

Tennis: 13-12, 5-9 ACC

Track and field: 8th place ACC Indoor Championships

Volleyball: 16-12, 10-8 ACC

One point. 

That's all that separated Notre Dame women's basketball from back-to-back national championships.

The Irish, who have long been one of the nation's premier programs, reached the Final Four for the seventh time this decade and beat powerhouse Connecticut for the second straight year. But they fell to Baylor 82-81 in the national title game, ending their quest for a third title.

The Irish finished 35-4 and had a successful season by any conceivable measure. Still, this defeat, with a starting lineup of five future WNBA draft picks, will linger.

“It was disappointing because we fell so far behind (the Irish trailed by 14 in the second half) and then we came all the way back,” coach Muffet McGraw said. “To lose by one, when everyone on the team, including me, can look at the whole 40 minutes and say, 'If I would have just had one more box out, if I would have been able to get one more stop, one more rebound, one less turnover, we could have won the game.' ”

The women's basketball team was not the only Irish squad to get within striking distance of a national championship in 2018-19. The football team went 12-0 in the regular season for the second time under coach Brian Kelly, earning a spot in the Irish's first-ever College Football Playoff.

Notre Dame lost to eventual national champion Clemson 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl, but it was a defeat that left the Irish with a feeling that they are close to being one of the country's truly elite programs once again. It was a much different feeling than the one that surrounded the program after Notre Dame lost to Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship.

“I left (the loss to the Crimson Tide) feeling like there was so much work to be done from the inside out, so much development, so much recruiting,” Kelly said. “This (loss to Clemson) is a totally different feeling. I feel like this football team is on the brink. Where, when I left that game, it was, 'Boy, do we have a lot of work to do.'”

The Irish will have to reach a half-dozen more playoffs, however, before they attain the level of consistent excellence the women's basketball team has achieved.

The following is a conversation with McGraw about Notre Dame's 2018-19 season and beyond. (Answers edited for length.)

Question: With seven Final Fours in the last nine seasons, do you still consider a season in which your team “only” makes the Final Four or the national title game a success?

Answer: Getting to the Final Four is a tremendous accomplishment that a lot of schools never even get to experience. We really treasure that experience. Our goal is to win a national championship, but to get down to that group of four, that's the best teams in the country every single year, so I think to be in that elite class really separates our program from a lot of others.

Q: What was it like to watch all five of your starters get drafted, including seeing Jackie Young go No. 1 overall?

A:  It was exciting. It was still kind of close to the loss (to Baylor), so it was like, “Turn the page, turn the page, let's celebrate this and try not to think back a week and what just transpired.” It was so quick. We just got back (from Tampa, Florida, site of the 2019 Final Four) and everything was a whirlwind and then we went to the draft.

That was just really fun to be able to watch the success that we had transfer over to them and really allow them to continue their careers.

Q: With the entire starting five gone, there will be a new group of contributors this season. How does that change your job as a coach?

A: We're not just turning the page, we're starting a whole new book. That's exciting to me because it's a young team, we have no experience, so it's going to be a lot of teaching, it's going to be a little bit slower-paced, a little more simplistic. The identity of this team right now is that they're working so hard together, they've got a great bond. 

This year I feel like we're all young, we're all in the same boat. It's been really fun to look at them, see how eager they are to learn and how open they are to coaching. It's a situation where everybody knows, you have an opportunity not just to play, but to really contribute.

Q: In your conversation for The Journal Gazette's State of Athletics in 2018, you said you thought interest in women's college basketball “peaked” because of the exciting 2018 Final Four (Notre Dame won two games on buzzer-beaters). Do you think interest increased even more in 2018-19?

A: Last year we transcended basketball, we were getting the common fans that weren't really women's basketball fans to tune in. ... I think some of them came back and I think we had another great showing. 

I think interest in the game (is up) because the games have been close. We've had a lot of years where one team dominated and people got tired of watching it.

With the parity we have, it's making it more exciting for the fans.

dsinn@jg.net