Notre Dame’s McGraw joins 700-win club

By Cory Bernard

Irish coach Muffet McGraw spent much of her pre-Notre Dame life either playing or coaching basketball in the Philadelphia area, so it was only fitting she record her 700th career win there Tuesday night.

No. 2 Notre Dame held on to beat Villanova 59-52 at The Pavilion in Villanova, Pa., and McGraw joined 12 other Division I coaches in the 700-win club.

“It made it so much sweeter,” McGraw said of the homecoming atmosphere. “It was just so much better and so great to have all my friends and family in my hometown. It just really made this one special.”

McGraw said her players wanted to get the milestone win, but a road victory over the Wildcats (16-6, 5-4 Big East) was enough cause for celebration.

“I think they were acutely aware (of the milestone) early. I think they were aware and I think they wanted to get it done,” she said. “It’s a hard game for us. It was just a great effort by them to maintain their poise down the stretch. And having a win not just for 700, but just getting a win at Villanova is difficult, so I’m just really thrilled we got that.”

The Irish (21-1, 9-0) never trailed, but never pulled away either. They closed the first half on a 10-2 run to take a 29-21 lead into the locker room, but never led by more than 10 in the second half. With 4:45 remaining in the game, Villanova junior guard Devon Kane sank a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 48-46. Notre Dame responded with an 11-6 run to seal the victory. McGraw said the Wildcats’ slow offensive tempo kept the game tight.

“Their style of play, that’s the way they play, they use the clock,” she said. “You get one shot and then you know they’re going to come down and use 30 seconds, and if they get an offensive rebound they’re going to use 30 more.

“It’s a hard game to flow when you’re an up-tempo team like we are, because our whole game is based on running and getting the transition going and we just weren’t able to do that. It’s a very difficult game for us.”

The Irish turned up the defensive heat early in the contest, implementing a full-court press every time the Wildcats inbounded the ball. According to McGraw, the tactic was meant to counteract Villanova’s methodical offense.

“We were trying to use some of the clock so that when we were (on defense), we only had to guard their offense for maybe 13 seconds instead of 30,” McGraw said.

Senior guard and leading scorer Skylar Diggins struggled from the field, shooting 4-for-17 from the field, including 0-for-3 from beyond the 3-point arc.

“I think the pace was difficult. To play at that pace, you start to press a little bit because you want to go a little faster than normal, so I think (Diggins) was probably just trying too hard,” McGraw said of the guard’s struggles.

Unlike Diggins, junior forward Natalie Achonwa thrived in the matchup against the Wildcats. Consistently playing against undersized Villanova defenders, she registered 19 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks to lead Notre Dame.

“She’s playing extremely well,” McGraw said of Achonwa. “She’s just such a big part of our offense and what we need to do. I thought tonight she would have a big game because she had a big advantage in size and she used her advantage. We looked for her and we got her the ball, and she did a great job.”

The Irish will head east again this weekend when they face Seton Hall in South Orange, N.J., at the Walsh Gymnasium on Saturday at 2 p.m.

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