Lady Irish want to return to national championship game

Lady Irish want to return to national championship game

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -- The only place where Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is lowering expectations after back-to-back appearances in the national championship game is in how she believes the Fighting Irish will begin the season.
   "I think we're going to take some lumps early," she said. "When you have freshmen who are going to be playing a lot of time, which we will have, there are going to be ups and downs."
   The Irish lost seniors Devereaux Peters, Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory from a team that lost  80-61 to Baylor in the title game a year after letting a late lead slip away in a six-point loss to Texas A&M in the championship game. Not many outside of South Bend are expecting the Irish to make a third straight championship game appearance.
   But McGraw, entering her 26th season as Notre Dame coach, believes she has the talent to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament.  
   "We don't want to lower our expectations. We just want to rise to the challenge," McGraw said.
   The Irish are led by first-team All-America guard Skylar Diggins, whom McGraw said could be tested at times as she adjust playing with younger players.
   "Because she's going to be the veteran leader among a lot of really young leaders that haven't really needed to do it before. So that's going to be another challenge for her, to manage her frustration this year," she said.
   Diggins won't have to do it all on her, though. The Irish also return starting guard Kayla McBride and forward Natalie Achonwa, who was the sixth player last season. The key is finding the right mix of players to fill in around them, McGraw said.
   "I think we have a lot of possibilities. There are a lot of people who are going to emerge. And we're waiting for them to separate themselves," she said.
   The Irish will do it under some difficult circumstances, opening the season against Ohio State and playing defending national champion Baylor at home on Dec. 5. McGraw was asked Tuesday whether her team has gotten over the loss to Baylor in the championship game.
   "No, we have not, and I think for a lot of reasons -- not the least of which is what happened after and what came out after. It really made it harder to swallow," she said.
   The NCAA put Baylor on three years of probation Wednesday after an investigation turned up hundreds of impermissible telephone calls and text messages sent to prep recruits by coaches and assistants on the men's and women's basketball teams.
   But the Irish are looking ahead now and like McGraw, Diggins isn't lowering her expectations.
   "It's the same expectation every year. It hasn't changed. I expect us to perform at a high level," she said. "I expect us to compete with the best of the best. And in the end, I expect us to be in the position that we were last year, with hopefully a different outcome."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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