Notre Dame and Mississippi State players shuffled into Nationwide Arena at 10 a.m. Saturday, glassy-eyed from lack of sleep and emotionally hung over, and faced reality.
Friday night had been historic. It was the first women’s Final Four to feature two overtime games. No. 1 seed Notre Dame slew its demon by ending a seven-game losing streak against Connecticut, its longtime rival and the gold standard in women’s basketball. No. 1 seed Mississippi State got a chance to face down its demon by defeating Louisville for a second shot at a national championship it lost to South Carolina in last year’s final.
Now comes the hard part, in which the Bulldogs and Fighting Irish must find a way to level out mentally and emotionally before meeting in the championship game on Sunday evening. It’s tricky, finding the sweet spot between coming down just enough from Friday’s to be focused and getting up just enough for the title game to be at your competitive best.
Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw knows how tough that can be. In the 2011 NCAA tournament, her Fighting Irish beat top-seeded Tennessee and a Maya Moore-led Connecticut team in consecutive games before falling to Texas A&M in the championship.
“It’s really tough,” McGraw said. In 2011, “we beat Tennessee in the regional, came in and beat Connecticut. Nobody had ever beaten them back to back. It was like we were done. We were spent. That was all the emotion that we had. We just never really recovered from it. And I think it was similar - any time you beat Connecticut, because of the dominance of their program, it’s just such an emotional win. It makes it really hard to kind of get back to work. You feel like that should have been the championship game. We should be going home right now.”
As hard as it is to get mentally right, McGraw and Mississippi State know a title game between two ultra-talented, well-prepared teams can come down to mentality.
“It’s all about the mind-set,” McGraw said. “Really it’s all about, this is a game, two teams coming in playing for a national championship. They were here last year. They know what it’s like. So for us, I think just a matter of continuing to do what we’ve been doing and not let the pressure of the moment get to us.”
Mississippi State has more recent practice at managing the emotions of a thrilling overtime win in a national semifinal, since it upset Connecticut at the buzzer last year. Morgan William, the player who hit that winning shot in 2017, said this year’s Bulldogs are more mature, more accustomed to the demands of a Final Four weekend.
But more than relying on experience to mentally prepare, Mississippi State (37-1) is tapping into their desire for redemption.
“We have unfinished business,” senior Blair Schaefer said. “Last year we got to the national championship game, but I really feel like we left something out there. At this point in time, everyone’s sore. Everyone’s tired. It’s about that team that can find the grit in them to go finish it. This year, we have that mentality of ‘We don’t care how you feel, we don’t care how tired you are, how sore.’ We have come together as a team and made a point to finish it off.”
Schaefer and William have to hope their motivation to win is simply bigger than Notre Dame’s, which will play its fifth national championship game in the past eight years and sixth overall.
Despite all those trips, the Irish have captured only one national title, in 2001. Only one of McGraw’s active players, senior Kathryn Westbeld, has been to a title game.
The story line surrounding Notre Dame (34-3) has been its resilience in advancing to the title game despite having four players suffer torn anterior cruciate ligaments, reducing their roster to seven scholarship players. But living up to the program’s history motivates the team as much as anything, guard Marina Mabrey said.
Her older sister Michaela also played for the Irish.
“I think even just watching my sister play, she used to say like, oh yeah, we always go to the Final Four, we have to go to the Final Four, and you know, my freshman year going to the Sweet 16 and losing I was like, ‘Oh wow, we’re the worst team ever,’ “ Mabrey said. “So I feel like there’s a sense of letdown even that we didn’t win the ACC tournament this year. But if it was going to take us losing the ACC tournament to try to fix things and change things around, tighten up, for us to win a national championship, I’ll take it . . . .
“We just need to make sure that we’re focused enough that yes, we beat U-Conn., but that wasn’t the national championship. We have one goal in mind, and our goal was not to beat U-Conn., our goal was to get a national championship.”
Mabrey admitted it will be difficult to refocus after Friday night’s emotional win. But asked if Notre Dame still has fuel left in the tank after an exhausting semifinal, she didn’t hesitate:
“I mean, I feel like I just stopped at the gas station.”