GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Notre Dame still has a shot at being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after several knee injuries crippled the Fighting Irish this season.
They lost four pivotal players to injury — but only three games.
As a result, the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish have put themselves in position for another top seed in the women’s tournament even after their loss to third-ranked Louisville in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship game.
“I think we certainly are in the conversation,” coach Muffet McGraw said after the 74-72 loss to Louisville .
No. 1 Connecticut has a top seed locked up, and the Cardinals would appear to have the head-to-head advantage over Notre Dame. That means it could come down to three teams — No. 2 Baylor, No. 4 Mississippi State and the Irish — for the remaining pair of No. 1 seeds.
The Fighting Irish (29-3) were one of the top four seeds in the NCAA’s most recent bracket reveal, along with UConn, Louisville and Mississippi State. They’ve earned a No. 1 seed in each of the last six years.
But this injury-plagued season is a bit different.
Notre Dame went with just a six-player rotation in tight games. Each starter played at least 31 minutes in the ACC Tournament title game and only one reserve logged more than 4 minutes. Non-starters combined for just 26 of the 245 points scored by the Irish during three days in Greensboro.
All-American forward Brianna Turner never played this season after injuring a knee last March. Guard Mychal Johnson injured a knee before the season and freshman center Mikayla Vaughn played just six games before she was hurt. Point guard Lili Thompson, a transfer from Stanford, was injured Dec. 31 at Wake Forest, and Marina Mabrey shifted over to replace her.
“We definitely needed some time to figure out, get some chemistry with me being at the point and not being on the wing,” Mabrey said. “But I think everyone’s help me out a lot, and we’re coming together well.”
Despite the injuries, Notre Dame never missed a beat until the ACC Tournament final. The Irish clinched a share of their fifth straight regular-season league title by beating North Carolina State in the finale , and after that game McGraw said she “couldn’t be prouder of any team.
“We kept losing people during the year, but we never put our heads down or felt sorry for ourselves,” she said. “They just came to work every single day. This was the most rewarding championship I think we’ve had.”
That victory came as part of a 14-game winning streak that was sandwiched by losses to Louisville — by 33 points on Jan. 11 , then by two on Sunday for its first defeat in a tournament game in its new conference.
Even as the Irish had won four straight ACC Tournaments from 2014-17, McGraw viewed her team as “the underdog.”
“It’s a position we’re not used to, and it is one that we’re really enjoying right now,” McGraw said. “I think it’s going to be a testament to the perseverance and relentlessness.”