SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw remembers looking over her team's schedule and noticing a daunting two-week span in which her squad would play at Tennessee, at Maryland and at Duke.
"I thought, 'That's going to determine our season, right there,' in terms of how far can we go, how good can we be?" McGraw said. "I think when we won those three games, that's when we started to think, 'You know, I think we can be pretty good.' "
The Irish (36-0) have been better than pretty good, posting the best regular season in school history. It's not what anybody expected after Skylar Diggins, one of the best players in school history, graduated last year. However, the Irish returned four starters and a talented freshmen class.
The Irish started the season ranked sixth and turned hope for a Final Four berth into belief after that stretch between Jan. 20 and Feb. 2.
"I think the Tennessee game is when we woke up and saw everyone's coming together," Jewell Loyd said.
The Irish fell behind 42-30 as Loyd and Lindsay Allen sat with foul trouble. But the Irish overcame the slow start and hostile crowd for an 86-70 win. Even better, the comeback was fueled in large part by the reserves, led by Taya Reimer, Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable. Notre Dame's bench outscored Tennessee's backups 36-16.
"They kind of stole the show that game. … That's when you go, 'Okay. Now we have it,' " McGraw said.
Loyd called that victory a confidence-builder. "Looking at that game, we're like, 'We have a chance to do something very special here.' I think that's the game the turned everything around," she said.
After mounting a big comeback against Tennessee, the Irish had to find a way to hold on against Maryland, the team they will face Sunday in the national semifinal. Notre Dame jumped to a 41-19 lead but by halftime the Terrapins had cut it to 12. Maryland tied the score twice and briefly took a one-point lead midway through the second half before the Irish finally won 87-83.
There weren't any dramatic swings against Duke as the Irish won handily, 88-67.
The Irish said after those three wins is when they began thinking this season might be special.
"We played three tough opponents on their floors," Allen said. "We realized if we played well enough, we would have a chance to go undefeated."