OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — It would be easy to forgive Muffet McGraw if she started taking Final Four appearances for granted.
After all, the Notre Dame women’s coach has become a regular of sorts on college basketball’s biggest stage — reaching her fifth straight Final Four with a 77-68 win over No. 2 seed Baylor on Sunday night.
Despite the top-seeded Fighting Irish’s wild success, their longtime coach has only grown more appreciative of the ride as the wins have piled up.
In fact, McGraw — likely because this season’s success was less expected than some of the others — encouraged her youthful group to enjoy every part of this week leading up to next weekend’s clash with fellow top-seed South Carolina (34-2) in Tampa, Florida.
“I’m planning on celebrating it a little bit more because they need that,” McGraw said. “They need to understand how special this is, and I will enjoy watching the freshmen enjoy it because for them it’s the first time, and it’s going to be a really special one.”
Sunday’s win was Notre Dame’s 21st in a row, a remarkable achievement given an offseason roster turnover that resulted in the Fighting Irish playing only one senior against a Lady Bears (33-4) team set on atoning for an Elite Eight loss a year ago.
Point guard Lindsay Allen continued her emergence as the perfect backcourt complement to all-everything guard Jewell Loyd, finishing with 23 points as Notre Dame rallied from nine points down in the first half. The sophomore was 10 of 16 from the field and continually left the Baylor defense without an answer — a game after she had a career-high 28 points in a win over Stanford.
Allen finished a combined 19 of 33 from the field in the two games in Oklahoma City, a two-game display she said was the best of her career.
“This weekend was just a really great weekend,” Allen said.
While the weekend was one McGraw wanted the Fighting Irish to remember for Allen and the rest of her teammates, Notre Dame’s recent Final Four disappointments were impossible to ignore admist the celebration.
None as fresh as last season’s national championship game loss to Connecticut, a 79-58 defeat that ended Notre Dame’s hopes of completing an undefeated season — and winning the school’s first national championship since 2001.
The Fighting Irish have reached the Final Four seven times, all since McGraw took over in 1987. They are now 7-0 in the Elite Eight, though losing in three of the last four national championship games led to a more big-picture approach than normal for the only women’s coach to lead Notre Dame to the NCAA Tournament.
“We have been there a number of times and not been able to finish,” McGraw said. “Each year, we feel like maybe this will be our year, but I think (we’re) definitely celebrating this whole week of what we accomplished all year long because only one team is going to win.”
While Notre Dame was left to celebrate its continued run of Final Four appearances, the Lady Bears once again fell just short of returning to college basketball’s final weekend for the first time since winning the national championship in 2012.
Baylor led 26-17 in the first half following an inside basket by Alexis Prince, but it shot only 35.3 percent (12 of 34) in the second half as the Fighting Irish ended the Lady Bears’ season for the second straight year in the Elite Eight.
Nina Davis, the Big 12 player of the year, had 26 points and 13 rebounds and returns next season along with point guard Niya Johnson — who had 46 assists and two turnovers in the tournament.
Still, the loss overshadowed any immediate reflection for Baylor coach Kim Mulkey.
“I know we’re young, but guys, Notre Dame is young, too,” Mulkey said. “So, they’ll have a good team back as well.”
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