Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw and her players thought the law of averages had to even out after they began the season having lost three scholarship players because of injuries.
One of them was All-American forward Brianna Turner, a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year, who had anterior cruciate ligament surgery on her left knee.
Then senior guard Mychal Johnson went down in the preseason and freshman center Mikayla Vaughn followed in late November, both with season-ending ACL tears.
The misery was far from over. On New Year’s Eve, point guard Lili Thompson, a graduate transfer from Stanford, went down with — what else? — a torn right ACL in a game against Wake Forest.
“When Lili Thompson went down, that changed everything,″ McGraw said. “Not having a point guard who can handle pressure and someone who has a great mind for the game — that was a blow.″
Also that week, McGraw added, guard Jackie Young suffered a broken nose that required her to wear a protective mask.
“We didn’t know if she could play but … she played through it,″ McGraw said. “I kept thinking, ‘How much more can we take?’ ”
Fortunately for McGraw, the bad luck has abated. Senior forward Kathryn Westbeld missed some time after being struck in an eye but otherwise the Fighting Irish (33-3) have been remarkably resilient in reaching their eighth Final Four with seven scholarship players and three walk-ons. They have won 18 of their past 19 games.
“We keep shaking our heads,” McGraw said. “I’m kind of torn between crying and laughing. This means so much. There has been so much emotion after what we’ve been through. There has been so much resilience with this team being so relentless going toward its goal.”
Notre Dame is a No. 1 seed, but it had to find a way to defeat red-hot Oregon 84-74 in the regional championship game in Spokane, Washington.
The Irish trailed 46-40 at halftime, but Oregon All-American guard Sabrina Ionescu sensed a comeback.
“They don’t want to lose,” Ionescu said of the Irish. “They know what it’s like to win at a high level. We knew they were going to come back and punch us.”
And, yes, Notre Dame rallied despite playing with two banged-up players. Marina Mabrey, who took over at point guard in Thompson’s absence, had an injured finger on her right hand and Westbeld was nursing a sprained ankle.
Westbeld expressed a sense of wonder at everything that had happened.
“Honestly, what we’ve overcome this season with seven scholarship players, everyone really just fighting until the end literally through everything — broken nose, sprains, black eyes … ” she said.
The situation was bleakest the night of Jan. 11 when Notre Dame was blown out 100-67 at Louisville.
A week later, the Irish were staring down another disastrous loss in falling behind Tennessee by 23 points in the second quarter, but put together the largest comeback in school history to win 84-70.
This season actually has been 31 years in the making, or as long as McGraw has been Notre Dame coach. Her first college job was as an assistant under Jim Foster, a former Ohio State coach, at St. Joseph’s. Then she won 88 games in five seasons at Lehigh from 1982 to ’87.
“I’ve learned a lot and have changed the (building) blocks quite a bit over the years,” McGraw said. “When you start out, you want to get good players and you don’t really care about anything else.
“I’ve learned that lesson the hard way. I’d say our building blocks are about our culture and having high-character kids who care more about each other and winning more than anything else. It’s a team of workers. They love being in the gym and being together.”