Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw remembers sitting down back in October and looking over her team's schedule and noticing a particularly daunting two-week span where 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 when the season began, when many wondered how good the Irish could be 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 and had hopes of making it to a fourth straight Final Four, but weren't favorites to accomplish that feat.
The Irish started the season ranked sixth and were picked by Atlantic Coast Conference coaches and the media to finish second in the league behind Duke.
But that hope became belief when the Irish played that tough 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 didn't get off to a good start against the Volunteers. They fell behind 42-30 as Loyd and Lindsay Allen sat on the bench for much of the half in foul trouble. But the Irish didn't let the slow start or hostile crowd intimidate them, bouncing back for an 86-70 win. Even better for the Irish, the comeback was fueled in large part by the reserves.
Taya Reimer had a three-point play to cap an 8-0 run early in the second half to give the Irish a 49-48 lead. Later, Michaela Mabrey hit back-to-back 3s and Madison Cable added another as the Irish opened a 58-51 lead. Notre Dame's reserves outscored Tennessee's backups 36-16.
"They kind of stole the show that game. That's when we started to see the bench emerge. That's when you go, 'OK. Now we have it," McGraw said.
Loyd called the come-from-behind 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 with 4 minutes left in the first half, but by halftime the Terrapins had cut the lead 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 saying 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."
The Irish say going undefeated was never on their list of goals. They set goals such as going the season undefeated at home, winning the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament titles and making it back to the Final Four. McGraw said she never puts a number of victories on the list of goals.
"Because you lose a couple of games and all of a sudden you feel your goals are gone. So we need things that can last throughout the year," she said.
McGraw said she likes to set more objective goals, such as holding opponents to a certain percentage for shooting or shooting 3-pointers, or a certain percentage of free throws made by the Irish. She declined to disclose what those goal-numbers are, but said the Irish had only reached all their goal numbers three times this season.
Other goals are harder to define, such as outwork opponents, come together as a team, have swag, Loyd said.
"We've been crossing things off our list and adding new ones," she said.
Natalie Achonwa, sidelined for the Final Four with a knee injury, said the sum of the goals was an undefeated season.
"When you add up all our goals together, it led to undefeated. Technically, we didn't write it on there, but all our goals added up equaled that," she said.