There was bedlam in a locker room at the Amelie Arena, the sort that ensues when a team—in this case, Notre Dame—books passage to its fourth national title game in five seasons. But the loudest noise was yet to come.
Suddenly Michaela Mabrey, a junior Notre Dame guard who harbors hopes of a career in sports broadcasting, seized an opportunity for a bit of on-air practice.
With a camera rolling, Mabrey turned to Hannah Huffman, her teammate, fellow junior and best friend, who just so happened to be the toast of Tampa on the night of April 5. After all, it had been Huffman’s heady defensive play in the game’s final moments that helped propel Notre Dame toward this celebration.
And yet, as she stood next to Mabrey, Huffman bore an expression of absolute concentration. This was an interview, after all. Serious stuff.
Then, Fighting Irish senior swingman Madison Cable popped in behind the pair for a quick photobomb.
Mabrey, unaware of Cable’s antics behind her, began. “So, Hannah, you made the game-winning stop. How do you feel right now?” Huffman paused briefly to collect a thought. Then, she burst into a little jig and belted out, “OH MY GOD!!”
Photobombs, fun, celebrations of sterling success. There may not be a better representation of Notre Dame this past season. A group that lost two WNBA first-round draft picks, yet still managed to finish 36-3 in 2014-15. Camaraderie and sacrifice, a whole lotta skill. Those traits were as deeply enmeshed into the fabric as the famous green and gold.
And friendship. “Huff” (Huffman) and “Uncle Mike” (Mabrey), roommates who’d first met at junior nationals in Washington, DC, the summer before their senior years of high school. In one of those games, Mabrey faced Jewell Loyd. Huffman was in the stands with her parents, watching. Afterward, she met Mabrey. They talked of their excitement for what awaited them in South Bend—the chance to contend for National Titles on a yearly basis.
Then Mabrey, um, showed Huffman her tonsils. “She thought I was so weird,” Mabrey says over the phone in early May, holding back laughter that still manages to escape in stabs. “I had strep throat, and I just wanted to show her how big my tonsils were. And she still talks about it to this day.”
When reminded of this fateful meeting, Huffman expresses the exasperation that can only accompany years of friendship. Quintessential Mike. The Jersey Girl who plays with such ease, hitting threes from unconscionable distances, then dropping no-look passes. And a legit cook—just, not so much when it comes to baking. Like the time Huffman, Cable and former teammate Kayla McBride asked Mabrey to make brownies. She obliged, and followed every direction on the box…but the brownies ended up burnt. (Mabrey had figured the chocolate sauce was applied at the end.)
But back to those tonsils. Huffman remembers thinking, Who is this girl? “I was like, Yeah, those are super swollen,” Huffman says. “And Michaela goes, ‘Yeah, I can barely breath!’ Was it a normal conversation? Not really, but that’s Michaela in a nutshell. She’s just herself.”
Seems fitting that when Huffman and Mabrey got a cat this year, they named it Rascal.
This past season, the Fighting Irish stayed close, and they stayed loose—to the extent that, before one NCAA Tournament game, their team managers cast an eye around the locker room and exclaimed, Wait, you guys don’t seem very nervous.
These were proven competitors, and they always knew when to lock in. And so it had been Huffman, the super-sub, who’d made that key defensive play in the final moments of the Final Four to stymie South Carolina junior superstar Tiffany Mitchell into a shot that fell short.
As the season wore on, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw had become increasingly confident with handing Huffman difficult defensive assignments. She had yet to appear in the second half against the Gamecocks. But with her team up one point and in desperate need of a stop with seconds remaining, McGraw didn’t hesitate to call on her. “I trust you,” was all she needed to say.
“Hannah was huge for us,” says McGraw. “What she does doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet, but we felt really confident having her out there. She’s just such a team player. She’s never cared about anything other than helping this team succeed.”
McGraw remembers a game at Syracuse, early in the ACC season, in which Huffman posted 6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in 19 minutes. In the NCAA Tournament, Huffman got better with each game. Against Stanford in the Sweet 16, Huffman took over. Hustle, steals, assists, layups, jumpers. All done to pinpointed perfection. When a timeout interrupted the surge, midway through the second half, her teammates raced out to engulf her.
Says Mabrey, who was one of the first off the bench, “I knew she was capable of that, and I was so happy. She was playing the way we know she can play, and seeing her parents there, able to watch her against a team like Stanford, which is right near her home, it was a special moment. She’s my best friend, and it was awesome seeing her succeed in something she’s worked toward her entire life.”
Asked afterward by reporters about her performance, Huffman said she was just happy she’d helped her team win.
This is Huffman, who has Notre Dame embedded in her bones. Her father, Lon, is a 1986 grad and a former member of the Fighting Irish golf team. “As you can imagine, my kids are brainwashed,” he says over the phone, laughing.
Growing up in Diablo, CA, Huffman never missed a Fighting Irish football game. She loved that ’05 team with Brady Quinn and Tom Zbikowski. But one of her first memories was snuggling up against her dad’s chair, watching Notre Dame win the 2001 women’s basketball championship. Even now, she can recall Ruth Riley’s heroics in those final moments against Purdue.
Predominantly a guard at Carondelet High, where she finished with a 4.2 GPA and a rep as one of the best players in California, Huffman has transitioned into a wing/post hybrid at Notre Dame. Rebounding, defense and toughness have become her calling cards. “Great teams have players like that,” says Lon. “She could have gone somewhere to jack up 25 shots a game, but that’s not at all what she wanted. It’s been tough, and it’s been good for her. Adversity makes you stronger. She understands the game better. My wife and I are so grateful she’s had this experience.”
Huffman knew she would be pushed in South Bend, and that is a principal reason why she picked it. “I give energy and try hard. I give everything,” says Huffman. “It’s not an easy role, but I control the effort I put forth. I don’t know how long I’m going in, so no matter the situation, no matter the stage, I play with energy and toughness.”
Under McGraw, the Fighting Irish run the Princeton offense with a rare blend of dynamism and incision. They score at one of the highest rates in college basketball, and this past season assisted on 60 percent of their field goals. “There’s a structure, but there’s freedom,” says Huffman. “Once you establish your role, you begin to find your niche. The one thing about the Princeton offense, it’s a thinking offense. You have to know the cuts, you have to know who’ll curl here, or flare there. I like offenses that require high basketball IQ. Notre Dame has great athletes, but we’re really smart, too.”
That’s what made this past NCAA Tournament so much fun to watch. “When you’re a role player, and you’re someone who has to add value or you’re back on the bench, it’s easy to play scared,” says Lon, who was in the stands in Oklahoma City with his wife, Kim, for that game against Stanford. “This year, Hannah figured out how to get out there and just play. That two-to-three-minute run midway through the second half against Stanford, she was the player I want to see. It was great.”
Says McGraw, “Chemistry and unselfishness: That’s exactly why we were so successful this past season. So many players put the team first. Hannah accepted her role, and played it brilliantly.”
This summer, Huffman, a finance major in Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business, will intern in San Francisco at Deloitte, whose CEO, Cathy Engelbert, happened to play for McGraw at Lehigh. “I know!” Huffman says, when asked about the six degrees. “I’ve got to find a way to run into her.”
From the end of May to late July, there will be workdays followed by relentless training at night. Then, this fall, the chase begins for that elusive National Championship. Is a sixth consecutive Final Four appearance in the cards, following Jewell Loyd’s decision to forgo her senior season and enter the WNBA draft?
“Every year, we’ve heard the same dialogue,” Huffman says. “We’re just focused on getting our team together. The first couple months of practice are brutal. They’re awful. But we get through them, we find out where we are and we figure it out. We’ll keep working, and we’ll get better.”
Says Mabrey, “Every year, the polls come out, and people think we’re either too high or too low. But rankings don’t matter. We know we have what it takes. We’re motivated and we’re excited.”
“This will be a very different team from the ones we’ve had,” says McGraw. “We won’t have the All-American, the top WNBA draft pick, at guard. Our strength will be in the post. We’ll be harder to guard in some ways, because we’ll have so many different weapons.”
In August, Huffman’s younger brother will head to Notre Dame to begin his freshman year. Like his sister, Joe is very, very smart. He loves this school, but after all, that runs in the family. As Lon puts it, “My favorite school is Notre Dame. My favorite team is women’s basketball. My favorite coach is Muffet McGraw.”
His favorite player? You guessed it.
Images courtesy of Matt Cashore