SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Back in 2013, when Notre Dame announced it was moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw was not going to let the breakup of the old Big East deprive her of one of the perks that came with the league schedule.
“I’m not going to lose my Philadelphia homecomings, that’s for sure,” the former St. Joseph’s star confided. “I’m going to call everyone. I’ll call Penn. I’ll call my alma mater. Maybe Temple.”
One school not on her list, however, was the one she played annually: Villanova.
However, courtesy of the NCAA draw and the ninth-seeded Wildcats’ thrilling 81-74 overtime victory Friday night, under 40-year veteran Harry Perretta, against eighth-seeded South Dakota State, the top-seeded Irish (30-3) and ‘Nova (23-8) will reunite Sunday at 7 p.m. in the Irish’s Purcell Pavilion for the first time since their Big East rivalry.
The winner in the second round of the Spokane Region game moves to the Sweet 16 next weekend against Sunday’s winner between No. 5 DePaul (27-7) and No. 4 Texas A&M (25-9).
“It’s so tough to play a big lineup against Villanova,” McGraw said. “They’re going to play five out, and to have our bigs chasing people around the three-point line is not the ideal defense for us.
“Anytime you play Villanova for the first time, it’s a huge challenge. We don’t play anybody like them. There are no teams in the ACC like them, nobody on our schedule like them. We have no film to go back and say this is how we did it before.
“In the Big East, we knew what to expect; for this team, it’s a very, very different approach. The preparation time that you need, there’s just never enough time.
“They’re smart. They’re very good three-point shooters, so everybody on the floor is a dangerous three-point shooter. They continually move without the ball. They use the entire shot clock.
“Normally, teams want to play defense for 15 to 20 seconds. They’re going to make you play for 30 seconds. They can lull you into their pace. It will probably take a long to time to adjust. One year, we beat them, 38-36.”
South Dakota State coach Aaron Johnston expressed similar frustrations after the Wildcats peppered his squad with 16 three-pointers, including two from Jannah Tucker and one from Adrianna Hahn in overtime to give Villanova its first NCAA win in 14 years.
“Against them, a double-digit deficit feels like 30 against other teams, because they’re so difficult to overcome,” Johnston said.
Despite Perretta facing an elite team that is loaded with all-Americans, and despite McGraw’s disdain at dealing with Villanova’s methodical attack, the two are longtime friends because of their Philly upbringing and connections.
“I can’t think of any pleasant experiences playing Villanova,” McGraw said. “But he’s a great guy. We’ve been friends a long time. He’s somebody I can call to talk about another team. Just get other ideas. ‘How would you guard this?’ ‘What would you do?’ He’s really a great X-and-O mind.”
Likewise, Perretta was full of praise of his coaching colleague at Saturday’s media session.
“Obviously, I’ve known Muffet for a long time. It goes back to St. Joe’s days, to Lehigh days [when she coached there], and we’re very good friends,” he said. “I’ve called to wish her good luck in certain games. [We] just have that Philadelphia tie that keeps us together.
“She’s turned this program into one of the best in the country. I used to kid her about her leather skirts. I don’t know if she still wears them.”
Perretta said he didn’t try to recruit McGraw: “She was before me — something was before me.”
As for attempting to add another big upset to the Wildcats’ collection, Perretta said: “Obviously, we’re going to try to slow the game down, keep it low-scoring. It’s obvious we can’t play toe-to-toe with them. Offensively, they’re just too skilled.
“Just try to make it as ugly a game as possible, try to generate three-point shots if we can, and we’re going to have to try to make them. If we don’t shoot the three well, we can get beat by 30.
He continued: “The skill of their big kids is just amazing to me. To see it live, to watch it on tape, you don’t realize the skill of their bigger kids. They very seldom miss shots around the baskets.”
He praised the Irish’s addition of Jessica Shepard as a transfer from Nebraska and said Marina Mabrey is an excellent shooter. Another standout is all-American Arike Ogunbowale.
“Each and every one of them have skills and multiple skills,” he said. “The higher level teams have eight or nine kids that have multiple skills.”
Though it may be St. Patrick’s Day weekend, the luck of the Irish has not been with Notre Dame this season, as McGraw has had to use a seven-player rotation with the loss of four prominent stars to injuries, particularly season-ending ACL injuries to Brianna Turner and point guard Lili Thompson, a transfer from Stanford. Many have called this McGraw’s best coaching job in her 31 seasons with the Irish.
Meanwhile, add to the injury list Kathryn Westbeld, a game-time decision after injuring an ankle in Friday’s 99-81 victory over No. 16 Cal State-Northridge.
Villanova has won only twice at Purcell, including a 48-45 victory in 2002 that snapped a 51-game winning streak on the Irish’s home court.
The Wildcats’ success this season comes from a roster that includes current senior Alex Louin and juniors Tucker and Hahn, plus the additions of Kelly Jekot, Mary Gedaka, and sisters Bridget and Brianna Herlihy.
Speaking of Philly connections, Perretta took time to note the 140 points scored by the Geno Auriemma-coached UConn squad against St. Francis, Pa., Saturday.
“One time, I was going to just put the ball down for 30 seconds and then pick it up again against them and put it down,” he quipped. “We’d get shut out, but I wanted to see how low-scoring we could defend them.”