It is a game that neither Penn State coach Coquese Washington nor her mentor wanted.
But thanks to their respective league offices, it’s going to happen Wednesday night.
Washington will coach against Muffet McGraw and her alma mater Notre Dame for the first time since Washington took over the Penn State program seven seasons ago, as the No. 10 Lady Lions (5-1) host the No. 4 Fighting Irish (6-0) at 7:30 p.m. in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Washington both played for (1989-93) and served as an assistant coach under McGraw (1999-2007) at Notre Dame before leaving for Happy Valley.
Despite both leading Top 20 programs, the two never faced each other — on purpose.
“Of course, we would never schedule a game against Penn State because I try not to play my friends,” McGraw said in May.
That came on the day the Big Ten and ACC announced that the two schools would play. Thanks to the dismantling of the Big East, the Fighting Irish became members of the ACC. With Penn State scheduled to host a game and Notre Dame scheduled to play on the road in the annual challenge, the conferences couldn’t resist putting them together.
“It will be a fun matchup for our fans and it will be a great experience for players on both sides,” Washington said. “Having two Top 10 teams play against each other, those are the kind of game experiences you want as a player. From that perspective, it’s going to be a fun game and an exciting game. And, I’ll be happy when it’s over.”
Washington says she and McGraw stay in touch often, especially via text. She said their conversations have nothing to do with Wednesday’s clash.
“We have not talked about the game at all, except in the spring when the pairings first came out,” Washington said. “We called each other and said, ‘Can you believe it?”
With trying to prepare her young team, Washington said her focus has been more daily.
“I tried not to think about this game too much until I had to,” she said. “Once the Illinois State game was over with, I was, ‘OK, I’ve got to think about this doggone Notre Dame game.’ I don’t think it’s been more than that. When you’re in the season you focus on the game in front of you.”
The opponent facing her team is very good. The Fighting Irish, who have been to three consecutive Final Fours, are off to a blazing start. DePaul, ranked 25th at the time, and Michigan State, No. 19 at the time, are the only teams to come within 20 points of Notre Dame so far this season. The Blue Demons came the closest with a 92-76 loss.
Led by last season’s Big East Freshman of the Year Jewell Loyd (17.2), the Irish have six players averaging double figures in scoring. Starters Kayla McBride (15.5), freshman point guard Lindsay Allen (10.8) and Natalie Achonwa (10.7) also score in double figures. Achonwa has recently returned from a knee injury.
As a team, the Irish are shooting 52 percent from the field, 43 percent from 3-point range and are outscoring their opponents by 32 1/2 points per game.
“They’re very good and very difficult to play against,” Washington said. “They play very hard on defense. They’re a great rebounding team. They’re an outstanding passing team. They execute very well on the offensive end of the floor. They shoot the ball well. They do most things very well. It’s going to be a tough matchup for us.”
The Irish have impressed the Penn State players, too.
“Notre Dame is very good,” forward Tori Waldner said. “They have a well-balanced team. They’re quick. They move the ball extremely fast in transition. They’re also physical. They’re crafty. They can play against good defenders. They’re ranked and as they should be, they’re very good.
“They’re very skilled, a lot of individual talent, and they play very well together,” added Maggie Lucas, who leads the Lady Lions with a 22.2 scoring average. “They’re really good passers and good rebounders. We’re just looking to follow Co’s game plan.”
Washington said her team continues to progress. The Lady Lions knocked off Oregon State and Illinois State last week to win their division at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas. The Lady Lions’ bench outscored Illinois State 25-0 in a 72-60 win in the title game.
“That’s huge for us,” Lucas said of the bench strength. “We have so many sparks off the bench and that’s a big strength for us.”
“Our freshmen grew up a little bit in the Bahamas,” Washington said. “We’re starting to get some pretty consistent and key contributions off our bench.”
One of the big contributors has been freshman forward Alex Harris, who now leads the Lady Lions with 7.7 rebounds per game.
“As the shot goes up, I get my self into position and I box out well,” Harris explained of her technique. “That really makes it easy for me. ... I just chase it down.”
Harris’ rebounding has impressed her teammates.
“She has the footwork of a guard and the athleticism to get up there,” Waldner said. “She wants to play. She wants to go after the ball. She’s a hustler.”
Washington knows her charges will have to play well to beat any team coached by her mentor, who has 720 career wins..
“She’s really smart,” Washington said of McGraw. “She’s always growing. She’s never complacent. You can’t watch games from five years ago and see that they’re doing the same things.”
The Lady Lions said Washington has not brought up her ties to McGraw and the Irish.
“I don’t know if the younger players really realize that she did play there for that coach,” Waldner said. “I’ve definitely thought about it. I think it’s funny, but Co, she’s all business.”
Washington’s players say there’s no extra motivation to win for their coach.
“I don’t think she would even want us to play for her,” Waldner said. “It’s for us. We want to win it for ourselves and we want to keep continuing to grow.”
“We’re trying to play our hearts out for her no matter what game it is,” Harris added.