Like Mike: Equal parts empathy and skill, Michaela Mabrey has emerged as Notre Dame’s fearless leader

Photo courtesy of Matt Cashore

So, freshman year, we went to UConn…

With these seven words, Hannah Huffman begins an illustration of a teammate, classmate, and best friend who happens to possess an uncanny capacity for clutch.

It’s January 5, 2013, a Big East Conference showdown pitting the No. 5 Fighting Irish against the top-ranked Huskies. Eleven minutes into that game, with 10,167 fans rocking Gampel Pavilion, this 5–10 guard checks into the game, ponytail swishing. Huffman takes it from there.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe she’s going in’, but she just strolls in there, goes down on offense, catches the ball on the wing, and, first thing — launches a three and nails it. She gets the ball again, dribbles down in transition, pulls up for a three, and nails it. And all of us on the bench are like, ‘Is she serious?’

Vintage Michaela Mabrey. She finished with 11 points (including eight in her first four minutes on the court), which proved crucial in helping push Notre Dame to a memorable 73–72 win.

For Huffman, it was a dose of déjà vu from her first meeting with Mabrey, a year and a half before. That was at Nike Junior Nationals in Washington, D.C., when Huffman was in the stands to watch a showdown between AAU teams that featured Mabrey and Jewell Loyd. Huffman remembers marveling at the Mabrey effect: this Jersey girl who switched seamlessly between draining deep threes and dropping no-look passes.

It didn’t surprise Huffman that Mabrey could recreate that effect against UConn, the biggest game of her career to date.

“Something I’ve always noticed about Michaela, and I think a lot of her success comes from it, is that she doesn’t have a fear of failure,” says Huffman. “Nothing fazes her. When she approaches anything, she expects to do well, and if she messes up, that’s OK, because she’ll get right back at it.”

Big-time performances in big games: it’s one of the first things you notice, scrolling through Mabrey’s game logs for Notre Dame. Take her six assists against Florida State in last spring’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, or the five assists and three steals against South Carolina in this past NCAA tournament Final Four.

And, most notably: she went 15-for-20 from three throughout the entire 2015 NCAA tournament. “That has to be some kind of record,” says Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame’s head coach. (It is the fifth-highest cumulative three-point percentage by one player in a single tournament in NCAA postseason history.)

“She played well in such big games, on the big stage, and she shot the ball so efficiently, which is what she’s supposed to do,” says McGraw.

When Mabrey is asked for the secret behind this stirring success, she gives the slightest of chuckles. “I don’t really know the answer to that,” she says, the faintest trace of Jersey in her voice. “I get up the same for every game, but I guess maybe I just shoot better in the big ones. Or maybe I’m open more. I definitely hope it continues, going forward.”

Family members and coaches are enlisted alongside teammates to provide perspective. What sets Mabrey apart? A common theme that arises: demeanor. Mabrey never, ever gets rattled. So says Mabrey’s younger sister, Marina, a Notre Dame freshman this season and, like “Mike” (Mabrey’s nickname in South Bend), one of eight McDonald’s All-Americans on the Fighting Irish roster.

Marina remembers clustering around the TV with her family ahead of her sister’s big games. Each of them would predict what they thought Mabrey would do. “She doesn’t let other teams affect her,” says Marina. “If it’s a big game, she knows that her team needs her, and she always steps up. She never gets nervous or messes up. It’s so hard to get in her head, and I feel like that’s why she’s so effective.”

Says Patti Mabrey, Mike’s mom, “Even if she’s mad, you’ll never be able to tell. She’ll make this little face that only our family can pick out. If she misses a shot, she’s already thinking about the next one. If she’s struggling, she’ll transfer her energy to helping her team.”

“The experience she has from playing in so many big games is what makes her effective,” says Notre Dame junior Lindsay Allen, who starts alongside Mabrey in the Irish backcourt. “When everything’s going all crazy, she’s the calming influence, the calming voice. In those moments, we know she’s going to deliver.”

This steely resolve goes hand in hand with her spontaneity. Like, casually dropping a three on the break against UConn. “You don’t really know what she’s going to do,” says Allen, “but it’s always a good play. She’s so smart, and she uses her body really well. She knows all the angles, and how much time she needs to execute. She might not be the fastest or the strongest, but she can get her shot off anytime she wants. And I think that makes her a great player.”

“If you get something wrong, you don’t worry — Mike will fix it,” says Marina. “If the shot clock’s down to 10 seconds, don’t worry. Just throw it to Mike, and she’ll make something happen.”

As a junior in 2014–15, Mabrey made 38 starts and averaged 22.7 minutes for a Notre Dame team that went 36–3, won conference regular-season and tournament titles and made it to a fifth straight Final Four.

She hit 38% of her field goals, and posted 7.2 points, 2.4 assists, 1.9 rebounds, and a shade under a steal per game, but it was her 40% accuracy from three that asserts her key role for this team: dead-eye shooting. Of Mabrey’s 93 field goals last season, 75 were three-pointers.

Photo courtesy of Matt Cashore

The 5–10 guard is one of the most prolific three-point shooters in program history, with current rankings of fifth in both made threes (164) and three-point percentage (.394). She is eighth in career three-point attempts (416). Almost two-thirds of her field goals in a Notre Dame uniform have been threes.

She is a culmination of her experiences in South Bend, those myriad lessons learned. They have helped her grow into a leader, one who is entering her second season as a team captain. One who knows that her confidence can be contagious.

“You see it in the way she plays,” says Allen. “She’s willing to take a shot from anywhere on the court, and Coach gave her that green light, because she knows how hard Mike works on her shot, and how good of a shooter she is.”

“Michaela is a great three-point shooter,” says McGraw. “And the great thing about Michaela is, she’s fearless. She can miss, and she comes right back. She could go 0-for-5, 0-for-8, and it’s not going to stop her from shooting.”

Left, from left: Marina, Michaela, and Roy after a cross-country race. Right: All five Mabrey kids at the park. (Photos courtesy of Patti Mabrey)

Mabrey was the natural, fluent in the language of sport.

Her precociousness was best revealed in basketball, which Mabrey says she began playing because of her older brother, Roy. “He was so into it, and he’d always ask me to come out and play with him, and I just wanted to be with him all the time. I learned everything from him,” she says.

Patti began coaching basketball when the kids were young, and she remembers Roy and Michaela — and Marina, when she got old enough — coming along to her practices. “They’d have to hang out, so they’d dribble and dribble and dribble,” says Patti.

Hoops quickly became embedded in the family dynamic. “When we’d go shoot, everybody would come along, including my husband,” says Patti. “We’d play 2 on 2 or 3 on 3 — and we had some wicked 1 on 1 games. The kids all just wanted to be a part of it. If somebody went out to shoot, another would go help them with their shot.” (When Patti was reached for an interview for this article, she was rebounding for the two youngest Mabrey siblings.)

Marina can’t remember Mabrey not displaying that patented feel and flow. “When we were younger, outside in the back yard, she’d always mess with me,” says Marina. “She’d look one way, then throw the ball another way. Or she’d look one way, and then shoot it.

“She was always tricking you. I still see it in her game today. She’ll be looking one way, and then just blast a pass through the entire defense, and I’ll just be laughing like, ‘Wow, she still does that.’”

“Michaela understands basketball so well, and she’s so talented, that she makes it look effortless,” says Roy, who, like Patti, often uses the word gifted to describe Mabrey. “She doesn’t ‘Wow’ you with athleticism; instead, it’s just this ability to play with a nonchalance and ease.”

The Mabrey kids would often head down to the local park for pick-up games, sometimes staying for hours. Marina remembers Mabrey sinking threes ad infinitum, even when the wind began howling. “And we always knew that when she was coming down on the break, she was going to do something crazy,” says Marina. “We just never knew exactly what it was going to be.”

Unpredictability quickly became one of Mabrey’s calling cards. As Marina puts it, “You think, ‘Oh, great, she’s open, she can shoot’ — and meanwhile, there’s someone in the corner of the court that she saw running there 10 seconds before everyone else, and she already knows she’s going to throw it there, before the defense even has a chance to react.”

“I’ve always been the type to pass first, and shoot second,” says Mabrey, who says she developed her scoring ability out of necessity as a sophomore at Manasquan (N.J.) High. “Then, as a junior and a senior at Manasquan, I had some players I could pass to, so I could incorporate both of those elements. And when I got to the collegiate level, it all just transferred over.”

Like many freshmen in powerhouse programs, Mabrey endured her share of struggles as she tried to find her feet. Thankfully, Roy was always a phone call away. When she’d hit an impasse, she’d call him, and the two would brainstorm.

There is a weight to Roy’s words that resonates with Mabrey, in large part because of his own path in basketball. The game never came as easily to him as it did to her. In spite of his tireless efforts, he received no Division I offers out of high school.

So, he went to DII Saint Anselm. By his senior year, he’d carved out a starring role for a tournament team. Says Patti, “Michaela has so much respect for what Roy says, because he struggled for years and years to get any kind of recognition in the game. And when he finally did, it was from all that hard work.

“So when Roy gives advice, it’s always from the work ethic side of things. And that’s perfect for the level at which Michaela is playing at now. In high school, she could skirt the issue and do what she wanted, but at Notre Dame, she knew she was going to have to put in the work.”

This was an essential point of growth for Mabrey during her freshman year, when she found herself on a Fighting Irish team that included established stars like Skylar Diggins, Natalie Achonwa, and Kayla McBride.

“Michaela had to work her way up the ladder,” says Roy. “I think at first, it was hard for her. There was an adjustment period when she had to find her role, to figure out what she could do to get more playing time.”

Roy recalls one particularly poignant conversation. He could tell that his sister was frustrated at her lack of playing time, and he implored her to use some perspective. You’re playing at Notre Dame.

Then, they created a mantra: Put in the work; don’t let your confidence wane. “In basketball, you’re not going to be the star every single time — that’s just not how it works,” says Roy. “You’ve got to find your niche, and then work your ass off to fulfill it.”

Mabrey poured in the work during the summer following her freshman season. As a sophomore, she was rewarded with increased playing time, and developed a knack for consistent perimeter shooting and solid (often spectacular) distribution. As a junior, she became a starter.

Now, conversations between Mike and Roy concern leadership.

“He’s such a great leader, so I always call him for advice when I get frustrated,” says Mabrey. Just as Mabrey credits her older brother with giving her so much of her game, she has made herself a leader in his image.

Roy often references the importance of team camaraderie, and as a teaching tool, he turns to his first year at Saint Anselm. The team didn’t gel, and the season became tantamount to a root canal. So before his sophomore campaign, his coach called the players together. The message was simple: Start doing things off the court.

Once practice ended, go eat together. On Friday night, head to a movie instead of scattering. “And everything changed,” says Roy. “The second you got on the court, you could see a difference. I can’t put a word to it, but it’s something that joins a team together.”

During games, he’d watch some opponents hesitate before passing to a certain teammate; they might then bicker over the tiniest things. And Roy would know: There’s your answer to why you guys aren’t winning: you’ve got problems with each other.

He imparted that lesson to Mabrey. When you deliver an instruction to a teammate, she will listen if there’s a foundation of respect binding you.

Says Marina, “Roy knows how players think — what they need, and when they need it. He taught Michaela that you have to adapt your message to different players. You can’t go talking to them all the same way. You need to learn each player’s personality, and figure out which person can take what kind of criticism.”

Marina (left), the freshman, and Michaela, the senior, during their only season playing together at Manasquan. (Photo courtesy of Patti Mabrey)

Since arriving at Notre Dame Marina has been floored by her sister’s level of leadership. “She genuinely cares, and everyone really looks up to her. Whenever there’s a problem, they say, Ask Mike. Ask Mike.”

At times, this can enter the realm of ESP. Marina explains: “Every time I don’t understand something, somehow Mike already knows I don’t understand it, and she’ll come over and tell me exactly what to do. It’s like she knows what I don’t know before I can even verbalize it.”

Patti brings up a phone call from Marina several weeks ago that further illustrates the dynamic. Marina was lamenting that she’d had a horrible practice. But before that conversation, Patti had received another call — from Mabrey.

So, just a head’s up, Marina’s going to call you and tell you that she played badly at practice. And she didn’t even play that bad; she actually played really well…

Minutes later, like clockwork, Patti saw Marina’s number on her phone screen.

Her skill has produced those memorable games, and will likely launch a professional career. But Mabrey’s legacy at Notre Dame — and this is a perfect example of why this program is so successful — will be defined by her leadership. She’s bringing her teammates to newer, higher levels.

“She’s become like a mother,” says Patti. “She knows that unless you have every single player on board, you’re not winning a championship.”

A head coach can deliver the definitive take on a player, and when McGraw speaks of Mabrey, she prefaces her words with her expectations for team captains: namely, communication and vocal leadership.

“That’s so important — every team needs to have a voice,” says McGraw. “You need to have somebody in the locker room, and on the court, that’s directing, encouraging, and doing all the things to bring it together. And I think that in order to have that position of leader, you have to first gain the respect and trust of your teammates and coaches. You do that through your work ethic, and how you conduct yourself.”

From there, McGraw returns to Mabrey’s intelligence, the way it is tethered to rarefied vision. “And because of that ability, she can really help other people because she knows where everybody is supposed to be,” says McGraw. “So, I think the combination of that: communication, hard work, and IQ, has really put her in a great position to lead our team.”

“She’s so personable,” says Allen, a tri-captain for this season’s team alongside Mabrey and junior Taya Reimer. “Not only does she have a perfect understanding of our offense, but she knows what Coach wants from it. Mike is able to get the best out of each player, and that’s what’s made her a great captain. She’s been teaching Taya and me how to be better captains, and better leaders.”

“I think Michaela is really vocal,” says Huffman. “She has a really solid understanding of what needs to be done. So, not only does she hold herself accountable; she knows where to place other people. If someone’s struggling, Michaela says, ‘OK: This is what the plan is; this is what we’re going to do’. When Mike’s out there, you feel confident.”

One of Patti’s proudest moments as a mother came in that South Carolina game, last April. With seconds remaining and Notre Dame clinging to a one-point lead, needing a defensive stop, Mabrey was subbed out for Huffman. Patti takes it from there.

“Michaela is a student of the game, and she knows exactly what’s needed at a given point. So, at the end of that South Carolina game, when she was subbed out and Hannah came in for the last defensive possession, she was so excited for Hannah to do her job.

“There was no selfishness involved, because when you’re a leader, you can’t be selfish. You have to want everybody to be involved in the winning of the game.”

Huffman’s stifling perimeter defense forced Gamecocks star Tiffany Mitchell into a wayward shot. Notre Dame punched its ticket to the national title game. In a raucous post-game locker room, punctuated by a perfect photobomb from Madison Cable, it was Mabrey who produced an interview of her best friend. Both were beaming.

“Some people are born leaders, and other people are made into them,” says Mabrey. “I definitely think I was made into one because of all my experiences.”

If the Fighting Irish have a fault, says Mabrey, it’s that at times they are too unselfish. (Last season, Notre Dame assisted on three-fifths of its baskets.)

Passing is paramount, and Mabrey loves to frequently flex her favorite skill. “Michaela is a prolific passer,” says McGraw. “She really sees the floor. She has great court vision, and such a great touch. Along with the leadership component, she knows her job. She plays to her strengths, and she does it every day.”

When Notre Dame headed to Boston College for ACC road games these past two seasons, Roy would make the trip down from New Hampshire to watch. He was awed by his sister’s command of the proceedings. “She was using picks, running opposing players around these screens that sometimes weren’t even set for her,” he says. “She just knew how to get herself open. She’d go by a defender without making it seem like a speed or strength game.”

When Mabrey got to Notre Dame, she had to figure out how to compete with girls that were bigger, faster, and stronger. How do I beat somebody who’s physically more gifted than I am? Says Roy, That’s by using your mind, and the players around you. And Michaela has continued to get better at that.”

Patti knows that Mabrey will be able to ease Marina’s entry into elite college basketball. “She’s going to bring Marina to another level,” says Patti. “And they have this very unique ability to find each other on a court. The little things like eye contact, two seconds before the ball gets thrown to Marina in a spot that no one’s expecting it to go — except Michaela and Marina.”

“Freshmen usually have to make mistakes before they learn, but Mike hasn’t let me make those mistakes,” says Marina. “She warned me about all the hard adjustments I’d have to make, and she made sure I had what I needed.”

Like, a planner for organizing her schedule. And when it came to basketball workouts, Mike made sure Marina got there early, to stretch.

When Allen is asked for a definitive moment, one that could sum up everything ‘Mike’ about Michaela, she pauses in contemplation. After thirty seconds, she hasn’t come up with an answer, and she tells you that she doesn’t think she will.

This may be the best example of Mabrey’s current level of leadership. So comprehensive, so perfectly calibrated, that it blends seamlessly into the day-to-day proceedings. The quintessential bassline to the song of a season.

Mabrey looks at this year’s team, the captivating blend of backcourt experience and frontcourt power sprinkled with three seriously talented freshmen. “We have such a good balance, and I think that makes us even more dangerous,” says Mabrey. “We can go to anyone at any time. I’m really excited about that.”

But back to leadership, for a moment more. Perhaps there is a definitive anecdote, and it seems fitting that it’d come from Marina, who remembers a scene from a recent practice. There was Ali Patberg, a freshman guard, looking at the court in a daze. “And,” says Marina, “Michaela was like, ‘Oh, she doesn’t understand what they’re doing over there; I’ll be right back.’ And she goes over and tells Ali, ‘Yeah, it’s really this.’ And we’re looking at her like, ‘How did she know Ali didn’t know that?’

“She’s just a really good leader, and I don’t know how to explain it better than that.”

Then, McGraw, who says, “You could be sitting at practice for five minutes, and look at Michaela and say, ‘That’s the communicator. That’s the leader of your team.’

“And it doesn’t matter if she’s on the sidelines or on the court. Sometimes, she’ll be on defense, telling the offense what to do. She’s just always trying to help her teammates figure out where they’re supposed to be.”

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops