DENVER — Notre Dame sophomore guard Kayla McBride was a sideline spectator at the Final Four a year ago, watching helplessly from the bench while the Fighting Irish lost to Texas A&M 76-70 in the title game.
She missed the second half of last season with what she called personal issues.
Missing out on the national championship game stoked McBride's competitive fire and she said she rededicated herself over the summer.
She's had a sensational sophomore season, averaging 11.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists while helping lead the Fighting Irish back to the Final Four.
Everybody around her sensed her dogged determination, teammate Skylar Diggins said.
"Absolutely, because she saw that we lost the national championship, so anything could have made a difference in that," Diggins said. "She's like, 'I would have scored seven points, I could have gotten a rebound, I could have guarded somebody.' And she makes such a difference this year."
McBride said she has a deep appreciation for Notre Dame's return trip to the Final Four because she felt she let her teammates down last year and wants to make it up to them by helping them hoist the championship trophy Tuesday night.
First, she'll have to help them beat UConn in the semifinals Saturday night.
"Last year was definitely difficult for me not to be able to contribute to this team. I think this year I came back with a little bit of a vengeance, a little bit of a chip on my shoulder and I just wanted to do anything I possibly could for this team," she said.
And she's doing just that.
"I took it as if I was out there, I could have changed something," McBride said. "I put a lot of that pressure on my shoulders. That's been in the back of my mind every conditioning drill, every running drill, every shot that I have taken, that was one thing that was in the back of my mind: what if I was in the game?' I took it and I used it to fuel my fire. and I came back with a vengeance."
UConn center Stefanie Dolson said the Fighting Irish are an improved team with McBride on the floor.
"Kayla is a great player, she adds a lot to their team," Dolson said. "She has that amazing dribble off the screen pull-up mid-range jumper, so she just adds that and she adds a little toughness to their team. She's a really, really good rebounding defensive guard and they're a lot better with her on the floor, definitely. A lot of times guards are seen as doing one thing, but she can do a lot of different things."
HONORING PAT: After receiving their WBCA All-America awards, a parade of players walked up to Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who was sitting courtside and gave her a hug.
Summitt was there to support Lady Vols' senior Glory Johnson, who was one of the 10 players to receive the award. Johnson was the first to hug her coach. She was followed by Delaware junior Elena Delle Donne, Notre Dame junior Skylar Diggins and Stanford sister Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike.
"I just said hello and she said congratulations," Delle Donne said.
Summitt was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, last August and said she wanted to coach as long as she could. Her last game might have come Monday night with the Lady Vols' 77-58 loss to Baylor in the regional finals.
PHILLY FANATICS: Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw doesn't fit the image of the brash, in-your-face, egg-'em-on coach like, well, UConn coach Geno Auriemma. She does, however, display the thick skin that comes from growing up in Philly, like Auriemma.
"For people who don't know Philly, the saying is when they don't have anything better to do, they go to the airport and boo bad landings," McGraw said.
"I think the Philadelphia coaches are brash and outspoken. I think there's a lot of sarcasm used. I think they are right to the point. I think that's something that even with my team had to deal with: I'm going to be honest and I'm going to tell you. And I think that's how most of those coaches are."
But because she grew up in that environment, McGraw said it's easy for her to blow off the bluster.
"Yes, it's so easy to let that go," she said, "because I think initially you kind of want to get into a fight. But it is easy to let it go. Especially being (that) I'm a Midwesterner now. So I'm so much more laid back than I used to be."
Auriemma bristled at the notion.
"Come on. You know, Muffet and (Baylor coach) Kim Mulkey are pretty much of the same era, I think, and they're what women's basketball coaches are supposed to be like: They're tough. They're competitive. They have a unique style about them. They can give it right back to you as well as take it," Auriemma said.
And Auriemma said it's easy for him to go after Muffet, in a playful way, of course.
"I bet you if she wasn't at Notre Dame I probably wouldn't try as hard to get under her skin, but the fact she's at Notre Dame it's easy," Auriemma said. "And I think that goes with the territory. It's like I'm the coach at Connecticut. So there's a lot of things that go along with that. If I wasn't the coach at Connecticut and we weren't this successful, nobody would care, nobody would say a word.
"But the fact that Muffet's from Philly and I've known her for 35 years and she's at Notre Dame, and if they keep beating us, we're in for it. She's in for it, big time. She's going to need more than a leather skirt. She's going to have to wear body armor. I'm coming after her."
DUNKING DUO: AP Player of the Year Brittany Griner said fellow Baylor star Robert Griffin III has challenged her to a dunk contest.
"Yes, he did and I told him I'm going to dunk on him," she said.
It won't happen until after Griner's senior year, however, and by that time, Griffin will have a year under his belt in the NFL.
Griner's already talking trash, suggesting she's going to beat RG3, "I am. No problem," she said.