After Arike Ogunbowale hit her second buzzer-beater in as many games last spring to propel Notre Dame to a national championship, the media attention and fame came fast. She was invited on the Ellen DeGeneres show, asked to throw out the first pitch at Major League Baseball games and honored at the ESPYS.
But now, as the women’s basketball season gears up once again, head coach Muffet McGraw looks for her star player and the rest of the Irish to refocus on a clean slate. Notre Dame enters as the reigning national champion, a new position for the Irish this decade, and one that comes with expectations the team has never faced before, according to McGraw.
“I think there is going to be a little bit of pressure, but most of it is self-imposed,” McGraw said on the latest edition of the NCAA.com podcast March Madness 365 with Andy Katz. “When you listen to what is going on in the outside, it can affect you, so we’ve really got to stay together and concentrate on who is in the locker room.”
The Fighting Irish return four of their five starters along with graduate student Brianna Turner, who is coming back from an injury that kept her off the court last season.
— Notre Dame WBB (@ndwbb) September 8, 2018
Last year’s championship ended a 17-year title drought for the program. Earning another title will require the squad to maximize their on-court chemistry, but McGraw said she’s hopeful all the returning pieces will come together as they did last March and April.
Ogunbowale, for her part, will enter the season under an enormous spotlight, but McGraw said she expects the senior to have no trouble handling the fame.
“She’s a very grounded person because of her family, just great mom and dad, really kept her right where she needed to be,” McGraw said.
FINAL: White 100, Red 75 #USABWNT@Arike_O goes for a game-high 18 pts., while @_ajawilson22 pitches in 16 pts. for the White squad. @Nnemkadi30 scores 17 pts. to lead the Red team. pic.twitter.com/7vLmrbEHuT
— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) September 6, 2018
The Fighting Irish have spent the offseason enjoying the opportunities that have come from their title win, like participating in community speaking engagements. The team also recently returned from a foreign tour to Rome and Croatia and will now transition back into the academic year with a focus on upcoming non-conference games and ACC matchups.
One upcoming game on McGraw’s radar is a Dec. 2 battle with UConn, the first victim of Ogunbowale’s 2018 Final Four heroics in the national semifinals. McGraw said this high level of competition does more than just create a challenge for her players, but also elevates the sport as a whole.
“Everyone in the country loves that rivalry, it’s one of the most exciting in college basketball, and fortunately we’ve won a few games which helps the rivalry, but we have a lot of respect for their program and what they’ve accomplished, and we are excited to defend this title,” McGraw said.
— The Fighting Irish (@FightingIrish) July 25, 2018
The Irish have come a long way since McGraw’s first year with the team in 1987, when she aspired to just earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. Now, Notre Dame is the team to beat. Expectations are higher, the pace is faster and the defending national champions are ready to begin a quest for a second straight title.