In sports, every great program has that one athlete who becomes the reference point of first achieving prosperity.
For Notre Dame football, that usually is the initial consensus All-American, George Gipp (1916-20). For Fighting Irish men’s basketball, it is Ed “Moose” Krause (1930-34), who became the sport’s second three-time All-American (after Purdue’s John Wooden) and is enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
And for Notre Dame women’s basketball, which began from humble roots in 1977 (five years after women first gained admission to the school) and has morphed into a consistent Final Four operation this decade, that figure is Beth Morgan Cunningham.
That is why on Sunday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion, following Notre Dame’s game versus Virginia, Cunningham will become the second Fighting Irish player this month added to the Ring of Honor (joining 1984-88 guard David Rivers), the fourth women’s player to achieve the distinction, and the ninth alumnus overall.
Currently in her fifth season on head coach Muffet McGraw’s staff, Cunningham combined with classmate Katryna Gaither to elevate the Fighting Irish from a run-of-the-mill operation playing in the Midwest Collegiate Conference to a stunning run to the Final Four during their senior season.
“She brought us to where we could believe we could get there, and I think we saw that team and really realized that dream was alive,” said McGraw, who took over the program in 1987 and is now also on the ballot for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. “That was the start of it — that first one has got to be the hardest one to get to.
“She was probably the only player we’ve ever had that got a standing ovation at Connecticut when she left the game. She was just a phenomenal player, just so poised under pressure.”
Cunningham arrived at a point when the program and McGraw were at a crossroads. In the team’s first 10 seasons (1978-87), it was 0-17 versus ranked teams. When McGraw arrived in 1987, the Irish defeated No. 17 Duke for their first victory ever against a ranked foe, but as a North Star Conference member, Notre Dame lacked credibility nationally, so it joined the slightly more prominent MCC the next season.
And then in 1991, McGraw received the perceived game-changing boost needed when she signed two "five star" recruits, headlined by No. 1 player Michelle Marciniak. McGraw shifted into overdrive by scheduling the nation’s top teams that year — and it resulted in a miserable 14-17 campaign, and her record dropping to 0-9 against top 10 teams.
To rub salt into the wound, Marciniak transferred after that season to superpower Tennessee because the situation to make Notre Dame into a power appeared hopeless. A year later — when the Irish improved to 15-12 but were 0-5 against ranked foes — the other top recruit, Audrey Gomez, would transfer to USC.
However, when Bloomington, Ind., native Beth Morgan and Gaither opted to enroll in 1993, it became the true program-changer for McGraw & Co.
“When I came here, I felt like the pieces were in place to have a great program,” Cunningham recalled this week. “Notre Dame is such a prestigious institution that can attract the top student-athletes … it’s something you dream about.”
She admitted it was not easy to say no to her hometown school, Indiana University — where her father Bob was the baseball coach from 1983-2005.
“The women’s basketball coach’s office was right next to my dad’s office,” Morgan noted. “I was recruited by a couple of other Final Four programs … At the end of the day it was what the priorities were for me, and Notre Dame fit it to a T. I had to go through the recruiting process to figure that out. It’s the best decision I ever made.
“Everything was in place for this program to go to the next level, and I felt like we just needed the players to do it. I wanted to be part of that freshman class that was going to come in and change that and help build this program.”
Did she ever. As a freshman, while Gaither was still finding her wings with a 5.3 scoring average and never starting, Morgan soared instantly with a team high 17.9 scoring average during a 22-7 campaign, an MCC title and an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Irish captured the MCC title the next year again with a 15-1 record — and by Morgan’s junior year Notre Dame (1995-96) was in the far more esteemed Big East, where it went 15-3 in the league and then won its first ever NCAA Tournament game, 73-60 versus No. 15 Purdue. Morgan averaged 20.2 points per contest, the first Irish player to achieve a 20-plus average during a season, and still second on the all-time single season chart — to Gaither’s 20.4 the following year.
As seniors in 1996-97, Morgan and Gaither became the first classmate duo in college basketball history, male or female, to both score 2,000 career points, with Morgan at 18.3 that season to Gaither’s 20.4.
Far more significant, with only seven scholarship players on the bench because of injury woes, 31-7 Notre Dame made its historic run to its first Final Four by defeating Memphis, upsetting No. 14 Texas on its home floor, stunning No. 8 Alabama 87-71 — with Morgan tallying a career high 36 points, including six three-pointers — and defeating No. 22 George Washington.
“Katryna, and everyone, was such an integral part,” said Morgan, whose 2,322 career points trail only Skylar Diggins’ 2,357 and are just ahead of Gaither’s 2,2126 at No. 3. “Everybody had a critical role, everybody bought into what their role was and what they needed to do for us to be successful.”
The run ended with the loss in the semifinal to the late Pat Summit’s Tennessee juggernaut, but it set the table for future glory. That year’s recruiting class included landing future National Player of the Year Ruth Riley, who would lead the Irish to the 2001 national title.
“Every year, from my freshman year all the way through my senior year, it grew a little bit,” said Morgan, now the mother of four children under 5 years old, who met husband Dan Cunningham (a practice player going against the women’s team) at Notre Dame. “…Our program has come so far, and there were a lot of baby steps we took along the way.
“Now to be able to come back and have an opportunity to continue to be part of our program at an elite level every year … These are the kind of things we wanted to do.”
It became possible with Cunningham, and now Notre Dame will forever honor that.
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