For 24 consecutive years, Notre Dame reached the NCAA tournament. Until it didn’t.
At 13-18 and 8-10 in ACC play, there was little chance of the Fighting Irish making the 2020 NCAA tournament. Only then there was no NCAA tournament.
Instead, Hall of Fame head coach Muffett McGraw’s 33-year career ended with a 67-65 loss to Pitt in the first round of the conference tournament. And the streak lived on.
When McGraw announced her retirement, it came as a surprise to nearly everyone, including the woman who has been tapped as the successor, Niele Ivey. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was one of the only people who knew of McGraw’s decision ahead of time, and had a written agreement that the reigns would be passed off to Ivey.
Ivey, who was there for the first national championship in program history as a player and for the second as an assistant coach, has spent a total of 17 years at Notre Dame. This past season, she coached for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, a job she held when she received the shocking news that McGraw was calling it a career. After checking on her mentor, it was a quick process for Ivey to accept one of the most high profile coaching jobs in the sport.
Replacing Muffet McGraw is no easy task, one that was only made harder by the pandemic. Four months after her hiring, Ivey still had items in storage. After guidelines cost the team more than eight weeks together over the summer, Ivey and her players only initially met up in person on Aug. 1.
Usually, a coach would have all summer to install a new system, acclimate, and begin a new dynasty. Instead, Ivey, like everyone else, has had to make it up as she goes during an offseason dominated by Zoom meetings.
Notre Dame has never reached a Final Four without Ivey. Now, the team is hoping their new head coach will spark a tenth. But what do their prospects look like following 2019’s letdown?
During her time on the coaching staff, Ivey was often leading the charge on recruiting. She was instrumental in the recruitment of Skylar Diggins-Smith, and later Jewell Loyd and Arike Ogunbowale.
Ivey, like McGraw, is a former point guard. At the time of the hiring, Diggins-Smith posted this clip of her coach in action in the Final Four.
This was final four in Denver 2012.I was playing soft and @irishcoachivey was NOT happy! She came on the floor and in my grill to speak her mind! ????????This is great coaching! Half the kids nowadays couldn’t handle this, but I needed to hear it ???????????? pic.twitter.com/hSYvdOcAbE— Skylar Diggins-Smith (@SkyDigg4) March 29, 2020
This was final four in Denver 2012.I was playing soft and @irishcoachivey was NOT happy! She came on the floor and in my grill to speak her mind! ????????This is great coaching! Half the kids nowadays couldn’t handle this, but I needed to hear it ???????????? pic.twitter.com/hSYvdOcAbE
Now, Ivey can reap the benefits of her own recruiting as she inherits a stacked team. The freshman class was ranked third in the nation by ESPN HoopGurlz behind UConn and Oregon. After a number of small classes, Notre Dame signed five players to its roster, including four five stars. Madeline Westbeld, Allison Campbell, Natalija Marshall, Alasia Hayes and Amirah Abdur-Rahim should all be able to make an immediate impact.
The 2019 class was ranked 11th despite there being just two members: Sam Brunelle and Anaya Peoples. The two five stars started the season opener, becoming the first pair to do so for Notre Dame since Teresa Borton and Jacqueline Batteast in the 2001-02 opener.
Peoples played in 17 games before a shoulder injury cut her season short, still finishing with a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game and 12.6 points per game, which would have been the best among ACC freshmen if not for Brunelle. The forward averaged 13.9 points per game and will continue to be a factor in 2020-21.
Katlyn Gilbert made more field goals than anyone on the team last year. While fellow foreigner five star Jordan Nixon transferred to Texas A&M, Danielle Cosgrove caught fire from behind the arc to shoot 8-for-20 over the last nine games, and Abby Prohaska will be returning from a medical redshirt.
Last year, Mikayla Vaughn was the only player with significant on court experience returning from the 2019 national championship appearance, but missed 11 games with a sprain in her right knee, after tearing the ACL in her left knee as a freshman. In 20 games, all starts, Vaughn shot a team-high 58.4% from the field with 10.6 points and 7.0 rebounds.
Granted a sixth year, returning leading scorer will be back for her second year with the team after coming over from North Carolina. Dara Mabrey, who transferred from Virginia Tech, will not be eligible for the 2020-21 season, but will look to add her 3-point shooting and follow in her sisters’ footsteps in finding success in a Notre Dame uniform.
Ivey’s legacy as a fantastic recruiter is already showing up. Olivia Miles, the second highest rated player in 2021, and Sonia Citron, also in the top 20, verbally committed within the first week of Ivey’s tenure.
Notre Dame can also expect Ivey, like McGraw and so many others throughout the women’s game, to continue to be a champion for issues off the court.
“What sets Niele apart is her ability to connect with all generations — alums, her current team and future student-athletes,” McGraw said. “She will be a fantastic role model and a leader in the women’s empowerment movement, and she will represent Notre Dame in a way that will make our fans proud.”