With everything that is different about this season for Notre Dame women’s basketball –– a new head coach, new teammates, new protocols, and a uniquely designed schedule –– the team’s steadfast commitment to causes bigger than themselves and to helping others remains unchanged. Empowering confident young women and aiding their off-court development was a crucial tenet of coach Muffet McGraw’s philosophy, and even after a single turbulent offseason, it’s quite clear that the same is true of first-year Irish head coach Niele Ivey.
Recently, during the week of October 18-23, Notre Dame hosted its first ever Unity Week in coordination with this year’s StaND Together initiative and the Notre Dame Athletics Diversity and Inclusion Council. Events hosted throughout the week were intended to provide opportunities for and encourage discourse surrounding issues of racial and social injustice for student-athletes, staff, and the campus community.
On Sunday, Oct 18., the women’s basketball team kicked off Unity Week by participating in and sponsoring “Race for Change;” a 3.5 mile community walk that focused on raising awareness of social injustice, uplifting the African American community, and combatting systems of oppression. The team didn’t want to give the walk a more specific title or purpose, but rather, used the opportunity to speak out against the hate and injustice that has recently been festering nationwide. The “Race for Change” organization hosts walks and rallys all across the country, raising awareness on topics ranging from cancer to race relations to local sports team funding.
The women’s team invited all other winter sports teams, as NCAA and university rules prohibited the walk from being open to the public, to the newly renovated Library Lawn to ponder how they could all have a positive impact on the surrounding communities. Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey, as well as senior Mikayla Vaughn and junior Abby Prohaska, all spoke briefly at the event and called on their peers to do more to make their communities and this world a more loving, inclusive place. Vaughn and Prohaska are two of the team’s most outspoken veteran leaders, and coach Ivey is the new face of the program.
In her speech, coach Ivey noted, “Coming back, my mission is to love, to serve, to mentor this group, and also this community. That’s the core value of Notre Dame, and it’s definitely the core value for women’s basketball.” We’re still over a month out before any games are set to be played in the world of college basketball, yet coach Ivey has been accomplishing this mission already. This “Race for Change” walk came just a few weeks after the team held a clothing drive for local school children, and back in August the team participated in a community rally with other South Bend organizations to provide backpacks, masks, sanitizer and other safety resources and school supplies for those in need ahead of the 2020-2021 academic year.
Junior guard Katlyn Gilbert, whom coach Ivey, then an assistant coach, recruited as a high school athlete, believes all of the work the team is doing together off of the court will have benefits for their on the court play as well in terms of building trust and deeper bonds.
“I believe that the people that are on this team now, this is our passion; our passion is playing basketball but also helping people. The feeling that you get from helping individuals and doing good in the community, that brings a closeness to each other that you really can't do that if you just were to go to practice every day and then go home,” Gilbert affirmed. For Gilbert, she’s glad she and her teammates aren’t the only ones that get to see coach Ivey’s greatness anymore.
“It's just amazing to see her success and her leadership actually coming to light and everybody being able to actually see it instead of it all being behind the scenes with our team. She's in a position now that she can help so many people and change so many lives and it's amazing to see it because I know she's talked about it for years, this is her dream.”
This year’s Notre Dame women’s team may feature a flurry of new faces and challenges, but the past seven months have shown that coach Ivey and her team are prepared to fight for what is right no matter the circumstances. If the team has half the impact on the court as they’ve had off it, we’ll be rooting them on again in March in no time.
By The Numbers:
24: The number of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances for Notre Dame women’s basketball dating back to 1996. During this time, the Irish have made nine Final Four appearances and won two national championships (2001 and 2018). This streak remains intact, according to the NCAA, following the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA tournament.
848: The total number of wins Muffet McGraw compiled as the head coach of Notre Dame over the course of 33 years, out of 936 total wins. McGraw finished her career as one of just five NCAA Division I men’s or women’s basketball coaches with at least 930 wins, nine Final Fours and multiple titles – others include Pat Summitt, Tara VanDerveer, Geno Auriemma and Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski.
1: Irish Head Coach Niele Ivey is the first and only female African American head coach in Notre Dame athletics history. Coach Ivey was also one of only a few female African American coaches sitting on an NBA bench last season, working as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies. The former Irish All-American point guard was an integral member of the 2001 national championship team and has been a part of all nine Final Four appearances in her combined 17 seasons with the team as a player and assistant coach.