Ninety-four years after Death, Destruction, Pestilence and Famine took the names of Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden to cement the place of Notre Dame as the most iconic football team in America, Muffet McGraw, Carol Owens, Beth Morgan Cunningham and Niele Ivy took a willing and talented group of women and led them to their own iconic place in NCAA basketball lore.
And make no mistake about it. While the senior “glue” to Notre Dame’s national championship team may aspire to a modeling career, there was nothing pretty about the devastation and destruction the Irish left in their path. Just ask the heartbroken people in Storrs and Starkville.
While junior guard Arike Ogunbowale stunned number-two Mississippi State in Sunday’s championship game with a buzzer-beating game-winning shot – just as she had done two nights earlier in the national semi-final against number-one UConn – it was even more stunning that Notre Dame found itself in this position in the first place.
It is tempting to observe that God treated Muffet McGraw as a modern-day Gideon, continually depleting her troops until no rational person would have thought victory possible. But that would ascribe Notre Dame’s victory to the hand of God, and this championship was every bit the handiwork of the Hall of Fame coach, and her remarkable staff and players.
A 33-point shellacking at the hands of Louisville in January seemed cruel confirmation of that conventional wisdom, that nobody could sustain the losses to ACL injuries of four rotation players, including an All-American, and compete with the nation’s elite teams. A 23-point first-half deficit against Tennessee seven days later suggested that even McGraw and her team agreed.
The question wasn’t whether this Notre Dame team could win a national championship, get back to the Final Four after a two-year hiatus, or win a fifth straight ACC championship. The question seemed to be whether this Notre Dame team could survive until the end of the season.
Little did anyone outside the Notre Dame locker room suspect that high-scoring shooting guard Marina Mabrey could thrive as a first-time point guard against the most intense defenses in the country. Or that Jessica Shepard could be more than a scoring and rebounding machine for a middle-of-the-pack Big 10 team. Or that Jackie Young could score against UConn as though they were just another Indiana high school team. Or that Kathryn Westbeld was indestructible and possessed the heart of a lion. Or that Kristina Nelson could turn from a caterpillar into a butterfly. Or that Arike Ogunbowale is Mamba, 2018 style.
It seemed certain that the precipice that Grantland Rice described was at hand, but it looked for all the world that it was Notre Dame that was headed over it. Instead, a South Bend cyclone every-bit as powerful and destructive as Knute Rockne’s finest emerged from that Tennessee deficit. The 2018 South Bend cyclone left favored opponents in its final three NCAA tournament games in its wake and secured Notre Dame’s second women’s basketball national championship in its grasp.
Every championship team has heroes. Every championship team overcomes adversity.
But if the Notre Dame Victory March didn’t already include the lyrics, “what though the odds, great or small, old Notre Dame will win over all,” this team surely would have inspired those words.
At a place where championships are plentiful, legends are larger than life and ghosts are real (just ask Florida State’s 1993 football team), McGraw and her team claimed a seat at the head table.