Jersey girl Mabrey boosts Irish

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw had a simple assessment of what happened when Michaela Mabrey took the court against Connecticut for the first time a season ago. Dropped into what was then the fiercest rivalry in women's basketball -- on the road in front of more than 10,000 fans in Gampel Pavilion, no less -- Mabrey was on the court less than 30 seconds before she scored her first points, less than a minute before she hit her first 3-pointer. Two more 3-pointers followed, including one with just more than four minutes remaining and the Fighting Irish behind by two points.

Precocious. Fearless. Intrepid. Bold. Gutsy. All would have been applicable.

None was what McGraw chose when asked after the game in Storrs about the freshman who had played limited minutes in her first season but such a big role in a giant game. The coach settled instead on another descriptor.

"That came from Jersey," McGraw said at the time. "That was just a Jersey girl that had no fear."

For all its success on the court and its national reach, Notre Dame has not in recent seasons plundered the Interstate 95 corridor for recruits with any regularity. Katryna Gaither and Karen Robinson made that move with great success in the 1990s, but, in the past decade, Brittany Mallory came from Baltimore, current freshman point guard Lindsay Allen came from the Washington D.C. area, and that's about it. No shortage of talent has passed through South Bend in the interim, but it's a curious state of affairs for a program with a permanent connection to the region through McGraw, the Philadelphia native who recently added the Saint Joseph's University Hall of Fame to a list of accolades that included the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

McGraw knew what she saw in Mabrey because, much though both groups might protest it, there is not much more than the bridges named for people such as Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin separating Philadelphia and New Jersey.

"I think there's definitely a little sarcasm," McGraw said this week of similarities with her now sophomore guard. "I think there is a total frank honesty -- sometimes people call it brutal honesty. I think we just say what we feel and go with it. And I'm really happy with that kind of attitude because she'll tell you how she's feeling, and I like that.

"There's no guessing as to what she's thinking; it's out there."

And it's one of the reasons Notre Dame remains unbeaten and resides near the top of the polls, right where it was the past few seasons with, oh, wait, hang on, what was her name? The one with all the points, assists and Twitter followers. You know the one. Name is on the tip of the tongue.

There is life, not to mention championship aspirations, after Skylar Diggins because the Fighting Irish still have three All-American-caliber players in Natalie Achonwa, Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride but also because that's not all they have.

Let's run through one more list: Kelly Faris, Nae-Nae Hayden, Kalana Greene, Nicky Anosike, Kristi Toliver, Asjha Jones.

These are names of some consequence in women's basketball, names of players who amassed impressive college résumés and, by and large, found opportunities awaiting them in the WNBA.

All also happened to be the fourth-leading scorers on recent national championship teams.

That was the same statistical role Mabrey filled for Notre Dame even before she once again proved up to the challenge in front of a large hostile crowd and a national television audience, scoring 15 points off the bench in Monday's win at Tennessee, including 10 points in her team's supremely impressive second half in Knoxville.

Not only is she averaging 9.8 points per game and shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line as a sophomore who plays starter's minutes off the bench but she's right on the heels of Allen and McBride for the team lead in assists and ranks 24th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, first among ACC players. The freshman who hit some big shots but played sparingly has become an invaluable sophomore Swiss Army knife in the backcourt and the leader of a bench group, along with Madison Cable and freshman Taya Reimer, that helped win the day in Tennessee.

McGraw said part of the blame for Mabrey fading into the background after big January games against Connecticut and Tennessee a season ago rested with the person distributing the playing time. Diggins wasn't coming off the court for obvious reasons, but, combined with the minutes needed for McBride and Loyd, it left little room for development. Her defense and conditioning weren't where they are now after a summer of work. The confidence wavered just enough. In the end, Mabrey played just 30 minutes in eight postseason games across the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

That's the peril of diving in the deep end as a freshman on a team in the midst of a run of Final Fours. There are also perks, as long as one is willing to think about the future.

"I definitely think the pros are that, if you're on a great team, you're going to get better every single day because you're playing against the top players in the country [in practice]," Mabrey said. "Whether I was playing or not, I was going to get better …

"But when you're a freshman and you come in, you have to find a role. In high school, you always did everything. You were the man everywhere you went. Finding a role is something key when you first come into a big-time program."

This season, McGraw made it clear that the role is first and foremost as a shooter -- Mabrey is responsible for 37 percent of the team's entire 3-point production through 17 games. But, as the assists suggest of someone who both describes herself and is described by her coach as possessing a pass-first unselfishness (or perhaps stubbornness, depending on which one you ask), there is much more to her game than the one skill that first brought her to our attention.

Look at that list again. All of those players excelled because they were much more than just the fourth-leading scorer.

"I see her emerging next year as a leader," McGraw said. "She's a really good communicator. Looking ahead, thinking about losing the seniors that we're losing, she's a voice that we need to hear because she does have a really high IQ and she knows where we want to go and what we need to do. And so I would really love for her to emerge as one of the leaders of the team."

The coach might have to encourage the player to shoot at times, but it seems doubtful Mabrey will need much encouragement to speak her mind. New Jersey isn't known for producing shrinking violets. Much like Philadelphia. Those roots stay with a person, even someone who has spent most of three decades in the Midwest.

"I think [McGraw] has a little bit of both," Mabrey said. "I think when she's coaching, I think the Philly side comes out in her. But I think off the court she's a little more Midwest. But it always comes out. Even for me, too, I'm the same way. I'm a Jersey girl, but sometimes my Midwest comes out."

You are who you are.

"Oh gosh, and I've worked so hard to overcome that," McGraw chuckled at Mabrey's assessment. "I feel like I'm still much more Midwest at times. But yeah, definitely, I think there's a lot of Philly in there."

And there's a lot of Jersey in Notre Dame's success this season.