Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Notre Dame Women's Basketball: THANK YOU

Standing in front of 75 coaches, athletic directors and campus ministers at NCEA's Convention in Cincinnati for my session: Sports and Spirituality 4.0: What If? I wasn't sure if this presentation was going to fly. My technology proved to be incompatible. I took a deep breath, put my trust in the hands of the tech team (and the Lord) and waited. An optimistic (and patient) coach in the audience broke the silence and my tension in asking: Will you be talking about the shot? I said, "Victor, I would be more than happy to talk about the shot and the entire game for the next hour and fifteen minutes." Moments later, the synapses fired, the technology connected and my presentation flew. So here's what—if given the chance—I would like to say about the 2018 NCAA Women's Basketball National Championship, shot and all.
Thank You
The team was welcomed back to campus on 12:30 pm, Easter Monday in a formal, official capacity. A win of this magnitude merits an organized and well-publicized celebration. I'm not going to wax poetic about the days of yore when students initiated the greeting on their the Main the middle of a snowstorm...and 40 below—though part of me longs for the organic and spontaneous response from the student body, by the student body. Instead, I'd like to focus on what technology allows for today: one can watch this celebration live, though 2000 miles from campus. And I did.

Father John Jenkins' remarks capture the mission of Notre Dame and what it stands for. But I appreciated two simple, yet important words:
 Thank you. He said, "Thanks for the excitement you brought us, thanks for the victories, thanks for the example of how a great team plays together and thank you for winning a National Championship." Heartfelt and sincere, he meant it ....we meant it.  Which leads to...
National Championships Are Precious
The last women's championship was 17 years prior—to the very same day! I remember that victory and the road to get another one has not been easy. Though the Irish have made an annual trip to the tourney since the 2001 championship, they have been the runner-up four times, the Final Four once and the Elite Eight another time.

Winning—and championships—are never a given. I watched this team hold up the NCAA title trophy and thought about the rocky road they took to get there—looking at the players who sat on the bench because their injuries wouldn't allow them to be in the game. I recalled some of their losses and what was demanded of them as they redefined who they were and wanted to be. I let my mind flash back to the last National Championship when ND defeated Purdue 68-66. I don't care if you have had two in three years like Villanova or one in seventeen, I maintain and sincerely believe National Championships are precious. This title cannot be taken from this team. Their banner will hang high for years and years and years to come. And part of the reason for that is...

The Shot
If you're going to win a National Championship, why not do so in a dramatic fashion?! Arike Ogunbowale's heroic 3-point shot put the Irish up by three points with 0.1 seconds left on the clock (I have since come to find out it is impossible to get a shot off with less than 0.7 seconds. Though the referee required both teams to play out that final moment, the game had been decided—magnificently!). And, considering that she sent home an undefeated Connecticut team with the same clutch shooting in the semi-finals, served as a double explanation point. Her appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated is well deserved. It certainly makes up for the fact that.... 

T.E.A.M. Together Everyone Achieves More
The article "Towers of Power" by Richard Deitsch in the "March Madness" issue of Sports Illustrated appeared as the lone piece profiling women's competition in the 2018 NCAA basketball tourney. It made the argument that "Just like the top men's contenders, the best women's teams of all have one [ahem] big thing in common; a multitalented post presence who can control the game from the tip-off to the final buzzer." Not only did it profile those players who fit this mold, but it called out an SI's All America Team and made predictions for who we would see in the Final Four. Notre Dame was not even mentioned. No player or coach was profiled. 

As a loyal fan, I have watched the Notre Dame women's teams in years past with certain expectations. I think it's fair, given this team's record and disabled list, that our expectations were tempered. I am, however, not convinced that Coach Muffet McGraw nor this team would agree. The road to victory is paved not by midseason training or practice. No, it's foundation was laid by coaches, starters, subs and practice players in the time between last year's tourney and today, not to mention years, even decades prior. I am not a fan of sports cliches, but I am of this one because it's true: TEAM is an acronym for: Together Everyone Achieves More. This victory is case in point. Which is why I loved....

Celebrating Those Who Have Paved the Way
As I trolled @NDWBB for at least 48 hours after the win, though many photos caught my eyes and my heart, the one profiling former players struck me. I wasn't aware that teams did something like this. I don't know that they do. It costs nothing and yet it makes a profound statement. Above the photo, I read the tweet, "To our alumnae—who were with us every step of this journey—we couldn't have done this without you!" I love that Notre Dame women's basketball sought to recognize those who have paved the way. They ALL deserve to hold that trophy and relish the win. 

Through the Eyes of Young Children—>Girls

I watched both the semifinals and the finals with my two nieces, Lucy and Grace who are nine and ten years old. They told their dad, my brother, who plays basketball every week, that they prefer women's basketball over men's. On Saturday morning, the first words Lucy said to me were "Aunt Anne, I'm SO happy Notre Dame won last night." I brought these ponies to water....the team quenched a thirst I didn't know they had. #BestDayEver.

Grace wanted to emulate the hairstyles of the players, so I made sure we wore our own topknots to support the team. Lucy, who wears a headband on a regular basis preferred to keep that on—she will be getting a blue and gold one soon. No surprise her favorite player is a fellow headband wearing point guard, Jackie Young—the athlete who has inspired me to...

Hit the Gym
The Irish defeated UConn in the overtime victory thanks to the efforts of yes, Arike but also point guard Jackie Young. In the postgame shout outs, Coach McGraw recognized Young for going 32-11. As those points, rebounds, and assists were happening, Rebecca Lobo added color commentary that caught my ear. She said, "in the offseason, Jackie Young hit the gym and committed to building muscle and it shows." There is nothing revolutionary about what she said, except for the fact that they served as an important reminder to me that a commitment to training and to excellence, really does pay off...and opportunities will present themselves for that. I went to the gym next day, channeling the ND women.

And so, the story of this team is one of where opportunity met skill set. They entered the FLOW channel and rode it through Colombus and back to South Bend where we celebrate and honor this team, the all-female staff and the mission of Notre Dame revealed through their feat. THANK YOU, Irish Women's Basketball!

Photo Credts
All taken from @ndwbb

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