SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Life after Diggins has worked out just fine so far at Notre Dame.
While many wondered in the fall how Notre Dame would adjust to life without Skylar Diggins, the heart of the team the previous four years, guard Kayla McBride knew how good the Fighting Irish could be after the season's first practice.
She saw the way freshman point guard Lindsay Allen ran the offense, the skill of freshman forward Taya Reimer and the improvement of reserve guards Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable and forward Markisha Wright. She knew the Irish would be ready to compete again for a national championship because of their depth.
"I think it's our bench that makes us so good," she said. "I think we knew what we were going to get from our starting five. But knowing that we can bring people off the bench is what makes us so good, makes us so dangerous."
Coach Muffet McGraw said the Irish reserves have been key to the team's 32-0 season, saying the Irish head into their opening-round NCAA tournament game against Robert Morris (21-11) in Toledo, Ohio, with the best bench she's had in 32 years as a head coach.
"I think we have the best bench in the country. The depth is amazing," she said.
Not many teams have two former McDonald's All-American players coming off their bench as the Irish do in Mabrey and Reimer. Notre Dame's reserves ranked 20th in the nation in scoring this season at 26.3 points a game. The reserves, who scored a season-high 55 points in a 95-53 win over Boston College in January, rank fifth in scoring among NCAA tournament teams.
McGraw says the reserves provide so much more than scoring, playing key roles in rebounding, defense and doing the little things.
"I think we could probably start seven people," she said.
Mabrey averages nearly 21 minutes a game, while Reimer averages more than 19 minutes, which is more than the nearly 17 minutes a game starting forward Ariel Braker averages. McGraw said she didn't want to tinker with the starting lineup once the season started.
Mabrey leads the Irish in 3-pointers with 65, hitting 41.7 percent of her attempts to finish fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"She's that 3-point threat that stretches the zone. She's somebody they have to be aware of all the time," McGraw said. "She helps our post game because she's such a consistent outside scorer."
Reimer is averaging 7.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and team-high 1.4 blocks a game and has led the Irish in rebounding five times this season.
"With Taya it's rebounding, it's defense, it's the press, it's a lot of different things," McGraw said.
Reimer, who said the last time she wasn't a starter was a young girl, said it hasn't been hard to adjust.
"I'm just glad I can come off the bench and contribute and do whatever the team needs me to do," she said.
Cable hits a higher percentage of 3-pointers than Mabrey, making 21 of 46 for 45.7 percent, but doesn't have enough attempts to qualify for the league statistics. She's also second on the team in charges taken with six.
"Madison can do so many things," McGraw said. "She's great weak-side help. She's going to take the charge. She can make a 3. She's really smart. She knows the game."
Like Reimer, Cable is content with coming off the bench.
"I just want to be on a team that wins. Whatever I have to get that, then I'll do whatever I have to do. If that means coming off the bench and help the team or do whatever, I'll do it."
Wright (8.2 minutes a game), Whitney Holloway (5.1) and Kristina Nelson (4.4) don't play as much, but are all making better than 50 percent of their shots and have given the Irish solid play.
The Irish reserves say hearing McGraw describe them as the best bench in the nation gives them confidence.
"We kind of think that, too," Reimer said. "We know that we can be threats offensively and also just come in and help with defense and rebounding and other stuff off the bench. We're definitely a deep team."
Deep enough, the Irish hope, to capture their first national championship since 2001.