The Notre Dame women's basketball program enters its 36th season of varsity competition in 2011-12, having compiled an all-time record of 755-314 (.706) since playing its first game on Dec. 3, 1977 (a 48-41 win over Valparaiso University at Purcell Pavilion).
The Fighting Irish played their first three seasons as a Division III program under the auspices of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Head coach Sharon Petro was charged with building the Notre Dame women's basketball team from the ground up during those Division III years and achieved great success, going 49-20 (.710) in her three years at the helm, capped by the program's first 20-win season and an appearance in the 1980 AIAW National Championship, leading the Fighting Irish to the second round of the tournament.
Notre Dame rose to Division I status prior to the 1980-81 season, and did so under the guidance of a new head coach, as Mary DiStanislao took over the reins in South Bend. DiStanislao would serve as the program's caretaker through its first-ever conference membership as part of the North Star Conference (1983-87), and winning two league titles (1985 and 1986). She also helped the Fighting Irish to a (then) school-record 23 wins in 1985-86, resulting in the program's first postseason tournament selection to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), where Notre Dame posted a fifth-place finish.
After a successful seven-year stint from 1980-87, including two North Star Coach of the Year awards, DiStanislao stepped aside as the Fighting Irish head coach in order to pursue graduate studies (she currently is the senior woman administrator and senior associate director of athletics at the University of Pennsylvania). As it turned out, that decision set the stage for arguably the most important moment in the history of the Notre Dame women's basketball program … the hiring of current head coach Muffet McGraw on May 18, 1987.
At the press conference announcing McGraw's hiring, then-director of athletics Gene Corrigan said, "If we searched for an entire year, I don't think we would find anyone better-suited for our program." He may not have known it at the time, but Corrigan was ushering in an era of unparalleled success in women's basketball at Notre Dame.
Coming to the Golden Dome after a strong five-year run at Lehigh University, McGraw immediately set about molding the Fighting Irish in her image — scrappy, hard-working, and determined to achieve excellence on both the playing floor and in the classroom. Beginning with a seemingly innocent 67-61 win before less than 300 fans in the 1987-88 season opener at Loyola-Chicago and sparked by the school's first-ever win over a ranked opponent (78-66 at No. 17 Duke on Feb. 6, 1988), McGraw led Notre Dame to four consecutive 20-win seasons, matching the program's total from its first 10 seasons combined.
She also helped smooth the transition from the North Star to the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now known as the Horizon League), with the Fighting Irish immediately starting a run of dominance that has rarely been duplicated in any conference in Division I women's basketball history. Under McGraw's steady hand, Notre Dame won five MCC regular-season and five MCC tournament championships during their seven years in the league (1988-95), rolling up an astronomical 87-15 (.853) record.
The Fighting Irish also reached some new milestones during this growth period in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The most notable were the program's first two NCAA Championship berths in 1992 and 1994, as well as Notre Dame's first appearance in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, checking in at No. 25 on Jan. 2, 1991, following a 71-66 win over 11th-ranked Louisiana Tech five days earlier at the Texaco-Hawk Classic, ironically hosted by McGraw's alma mater, Saint Joseph's (Pa.), in her hometown of Philadelphia.
On an individual scale, guard Karen Robinson broke new ground for the Fighting Irish by becoming the program's first All-American, earning honorable mention status from the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) in 1991. Robinson also was a two-time MCC Player of the Year (1990 and 1991), matching the twin awards won by Trena Keys during the school's North Star Conference days in 1985 and 1986.
Another landmark date for the Notre Dame women's basketball program (and indeed the entire Fighting Irish athletics department) came on July 1, 1995, when the school joined the BIG EAST Conference. With the move to this larger league and a higher caliber of talent, Notre Dame wasted little time in reaping the benefits of being a BIG EAST member, advancing to the NCAA tournament in its first season (1995-96) and beginning a streak of consecutive NCAA Championship bids that remains active to this day (17 in a row through the 2011-12 season, the sixth-longest streak in tournament history).
One season later, the Fighting Irish set the bar even higher with their first trip to the NCAA Women's Final Four, reeling off a 31-7 record that started with a 61-50 win at sixth-ranked Iowa in the second round of the Preseason WNIT (the first-ever top-10 victory for Notre Dame), and was highlighted by a 17-1 record during BIG EAST regular-season play.
Led by the high-scoring inside/outside senior duo of honorable mention All-Americans Katryna Gaither and Beth Morgan (Cunningham), a monumental 86-83 win at No. 14/13 Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament ignited a historic run that continued with wins over No. 8/7 Alabama (87-71) and No. 22/16 George Washington (62-52) to claim the NCAA East Regional title, a ticket to the Final Four and a level of excellence that all future Fighting Irish teams would look to attain.
Riding the wave of its 1997 Final Four appearance, Notre Dame found a new degree of success in the next three seasons, making two Sweet 16 appearances and posting a 75-20 (.789) record that was easily the best three-year run in program history. The Fighting Irish also earned their first top-five ranking in January 2000 during a 20-game regular-season winning streak, building the foundation for the program's signature season in 2000-01.
Led by fifth-year All-America point guard Niele Ivey and consensus national player of the year Ruth Riley, Notre Dame reeled off 23 consecutive wins to open the 2000-01 season, including a victory over Connecticut before a sellout crowd at Purcell Pavilion that vaulted the Fighting Irish to No. 1 in the nation for the first time in school history. Notre Dame went on to earn a share of the BIG EAST regular-season title, and roared through the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament to get back to the Final Four.
On college basketball's biggest stage, the Fighting Irish embraced the spotlight, blowing past Connecticut in the national semifinals, 90-75, and then defeating in-state rival, Purdue, in the title game, 68-66, on Riley's two free throws with 5.8 seconds remaining. It was Notre Dame's first national championship and it capped off a spectacular 34-2 season that still ranks among the best in any sport in the 125-year history of Fighting Irish athletics.
The start of the new millennium saw Notre Dame women's basketball maintain its place as one of the nation's elite programs, with the Fighting Irish making three Sweet 16 appearances (2003, 2004 and 2008) and winning the 2004 Preseason WNIT. Athletic forward Jacqueline Batteast also would carve her place in program history as a two-time All-America selection and the 2005 BIG EAST Player of the Year (matching Riley's honor in 2001). However, those would only be a prelude to Notre Dame's current incredible run as a leader in the college basketball world.
Led by a dynamic five-player senior class, the 2009-10 Fighting Irish won their first 15 games (and 23 of 24), winning the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands and defeating five ranked opponents to surge all the way to No. 3 in the nation. Notre Dame then made its mark in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament before an overtime loss to Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 that lit the fuse for a memorable 2010-11 season.
Still burning with determination, a youthful Fighting Irish squad battled through a tough non-conference schedule before finding its footing just after Christmas with a win over eventual Elite Eight participant Gonzaga at the Seattle Holiday Hoops Classic. While learning some more lessons along the way, Notre Dame rose back into the national Top 10 and advanced to the title game of the BIG EAST Tournament for the first time since 2001.
The Fighting Irish also grew tougher and more focused, traits that would show themselves in the NCAA Championship, when Notre Dame won its first five tournament games, four of those by double-digits, on the way to an NCAA national runner-up finish in their second title game appearance. The centerpiece of that run was a two-game stretch that saw the Fighting Irish win consecutive games over Tennessee (73-59 in the Dayton Regional final) and Connecticut (72-63 at the NCAA Women's Final Four), becoming the first school ever to defeat both of those schools in the same NCAA tournament, and the first to beat them both in back-to-back games.
Notre Dame had three players (Skylar Diggins, Natalie Novosel, Devereaux Peters) earn All-America honors, the first time the program has ever had that many award recipients in the same season. The Fighting Irish also attracted a (then) school-record 8,553 fans per game and five sellout crowds, placing fifth in the final NCAA attendance rankings (after a program-best No. 4 finish and six sellouts in 2009-10).
Notre Dame took its program to even greater heights in 2011-12, rolling to a 35-4 record (most wins in school history), including 15 victories against ranked opponents (seven against top-10 foes) and the 2012 BIG EAST regular-season championship, winning the conference title by two full games over its nearest challenger. The Fighting Irish also charged through the NCAA Championship, winning its first four tournament games by an average of 26.3 points per game, then earning their third win of the season over Connecticut (and fourth in five outings dating back to the previous year) in a Final Four overtime thriller to return to the national championship game for the second consecutive season.
When all was said and done, Notre Dame set or tied 22 school records during the 2011-12 season, while ranking among the top 15 teams in 10 of the year-end NCAA statistical categories. Diggins, Novosel and Peters all repeated as All-Americans, with Diggins also adding the Nancy Lieberman Award (nation's top point guard) to her expanding resumé.