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With four alums, Notre Dame takes center stage at WNBA All-Star

Jackie Young, making her first WNBA All-Star appearance, joins four other Notre Dame players in Chicago. (Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

CHICAGO — The last time Jackie Young and Skylar Diggins-Smith played on the same team was during a pick-up game when Young was getting recruited to Notre Dame.

Coach Muffet McGraw couldn’t watch the contest, because it was an unofficial practice session, but she remembers exactly what Young said when she came off the court.

“Jackie said, ‘Skylar yelled at me. I loved it,’” McGraw said with a laugh.

Young doesn’t recall the conversation, but doesn’t doubt that it happened.

“I was definitely fan-girling back then,” she said Friday from the Orange Carpet of the WNBA All-Star Game.

Young, who plays for the Aces, and Diggins-Smith, a guard for the Mercury, both grew up in Indiana, so they have long been familiar with one another.

“I’ve always watched Jackie,” Diggins-Smith said. “She set scoring records and made a lot of noise coming out of Indiana. I’ve followed her since she was young.”

The duo are two of four graduates representing Notre Dame in the 2022 All-Star Game this weekend, along with Jewell Loyd of the Storm and Arike Ogunbowale of the Wings.

This is the first time Notre Dame has had four players in the game.

“I think it’s great representation for Notre Dame, especially being so close to the university here in Chicago, with the school being an hour and a half down the road,” Diggins-Smith said. “So, hopefully we see some familiar faces, some Irish fans in the crowd.”

McGraw won’t be one of those faces. A trip to Philadelphia to visit family takes precedence for her, mostly because it was scheduled long before the All-Stars were announced.

“I’ll be watching on TV for sure,” she said. “I wish I could be there.”

The current slate of Notre Dame players in the WNBA starts with Diggins-Smith, who played for the Irish from 2009-13. She overlapped with Loyd, who played from 2012-15, and between the two, Notre Dame appeared in four national championship games. Then it was Ogunbowale and Young’s turn to pilot the program from 2015-19, leading the Fighting Irish to an NCAA title behind Ogunbowale’s heroics in 2018.

“We had a great run from 2011 to 2019,” McGraw said. “And we definitely established ourselves as one of the elite programs in the country.”

According to McGraw, that success started with Diggins-Smith, who helped set a standard of excellence within the Notre Dame program.

She came in with a different attitude, one that McGraw hadn’t seen before.

“She changed the culture,” McGraw said. “That’s when we really started to rise. The way that she competes every day at practice, the way that she values defense. She’s such a great passer, and she builds that chemistry to the point where the players trust her and love playing with her.”

McGraw credits Skylar Diggins-Smith with helping change the competitive culture at Notre Dame. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Wings guard Marina Mabrey remembers noticing the competitive culture when watching her older sister, Michaela Mabrey, who was teammates with Diggins-Smith.

Marina embodied the same attitude when she played for the Irish alongside Young and Ogunbowale. She has since taken it into her pro career, and her fellow alums have done the same.

“I feel like we just learn how to be pros there,” Mabrey said. “Everyone plays so hard and makes plays for their teammates. I’m really proud of everyone from Notre Dame that is an All-Star this year. They deserve it.”

For McGraw, the success of Diggins-Smith, Lloyd, Young and Ogunbowale is no surprise. They play essentially the same way they did in college, but they all took on their WNBA careers a bit differently. Yet another testament to Notre Dame’s ability to produce pros.

“We all had different journeys, we all had different paths to get here,” Lloyd said. “It is pretty cool to see that, and I think it is just a credit to the mindset of coming into college and knowing the goals. College wasn’t the end for us.”

Loyd and Ogunbowale faced each other in last year's WNBA All-Star Game. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

That’s why the program is a mainstay at the top of college basketball, and why new recruits continue to buy into the Notre Dame culture. The four WNBA All-Stars embody that upward trajectory, something McGraw prided herself on during her years at the helm.

“That’s what every kid wants,” she said. “They want to be able to see, ‘How are you going to help me get to the league?’ That’s the question most recruits ask. I think the way that we run our program definitely prepared them to be pros. I think that it was demanding — I was pretty tough on them — so I think they’re able to handle pretty much anything that gets thrown at them.”

Playing for Notre Dame is just the beginning.

After seeing her players scattered throughout the league, McGraw is thrilled that Diggins-Smith, Lloyd, Young and Ogunbowale will all be representing the same squad on Sunday. The four players are on Team Stewart, with Young making the start and the others serving as reserves.

“I’m saying their team is going to win,” McGraw said. “And it will be fun to see.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.