SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Dara Mabrey would sit at the end of the bench, her feet hanging off the chair, the floor still inches away. The youngest of the three Mabrey sisters, then-10-year-old Dara played up an AAU level in New Jersey to keep the trio together for their parents’ ease. She would go in at the end of games, but rarely saw the court otherwise. Instead, she’d sit and swing her legs, back and forth, and wave across the court at Niele Ivey, the Notre Dame assistant coach recruiting her oldest sister.
“She was always the one getting everybody water in the timeouts,” Ivey said, laughing at the memory while sitting in the Fighting Irish practice facility in January. “We would always be like, ‘Oh, my God, she’s just so cute.’ We would always wave to her because she was just the cutest little thing knowing that she was just so much younger than her sisters and that team.”
When Michaela Mabrey, the second of five children and oldest girl, left that AAU team it was for Ivey, head coach Muffet McGraw and Notre Dame in 2012. Marina Mabrey, three years younger, joined them there in 2015. Dara, who is three years younger than Marina, at first chose her own, separate collegiate path in Virginia Tech. Until her journey ultimately led her to the storied walls of Purcell Pavilion in South Bend where Ivey is now head coach and Dara is finishing out the final month of an 11-season stretch in which a Mabrey played on every roster except one.
“I did like growing up watching my sisters on TV knowing I would love to go to Notre Dame,” Dara told Yahoo Sports in January. “But I knew, wherever I go, I’m supposed to be there. I’m always supposed to be. That’s the mature mindset that I developed from high school until now. Wherever my feet are, I’m supposed to be there.”
Dara, 23, is no longer the little sister providing water bottles and playing garbage minutes. She started every collegiate game she played in over a five-year career and helped lead Notre Dame back to the ACC regular season title and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament underway this week. Michaela is now the bench mainstay as an assistant to Ivey, who took over as head coach in 2020. There is still an Ivey across the court, at least there was during a home game against Wake Forest in early January. But Dara doesn’t merely wave. Instead, she’s the first one out of the locker room at halftime to give a quick chat and hug to Jaden, Ivey’s son and the Detroit Pistons point guard.
Ten days later, Dara’s collegiate career came to an end when she sustained a tibial plateau fracture and an ACL avulsion that led to a blood clot in her calf during the first two minutes of a home win against Virginia. The crowd that roared for their star graduate students’ pregame entrances hushed in grave concern as Dara was helped off the court. She rejoined the team in the second half on crutches, a foreshadow to her heartbreaking statement days afterward. In it, she wrote she was “confident that everything happens for a reason” and she was committed to “lead[ing] my team from the sideline.”
Nothing in her statement was surprising to someone who had spent even a half-hour with the effervescent, confident and introspective leader who Ivey describes as having a “heart of gold.” She’s thoughtful about the questions she’s asked, but doesn’t dwell on her answers and her reflections because they’re just that: hers and no one else’s. Much like her unique path to South Bend, which started in some ways when she felt the pressure of comparisons that weren’t to her 2018 class peers during high school recruiting.
“OK, you want to compare me to my sisters, that’s fine. I can’t do anything about that,” said Dara, who also felt the expectation from coaches at the time that “of course” she would attend Notre Dame. “But I always felt like I had something to prove. And when I let go of that, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this s*** is easy.’ ”
The pressure is “just completely washed” now, Mabrey said. She enrolled at Notre Dame on her own terms in her own way and in doing so has the program back on top of the ACC, like they were when her sisters attended, after a down couple of years.
People in South Bend know her for being Dara, not simply another Mabrey. It took time to get to a point where she could follow her sisters while paving her own road, but her legacy in the program is both theirs collectively and hers individually. The youngest Mabrey sister has weeks left of her last season and though her leadership won’t be on the court as expected, her valuable and experienced voice on the bench is poised to lead the Fighting Irish through tournament time.
A family bond of basketball and support
The first thing to know about the Mabrey sisters’ legacy at Notre Dame in Dara’s eyes is that they’re all excellent 3-point shooters, even if she didn’t have the prettiest shot growing up. Her dad, Roy, encouraged her to develop consistency and muscle memory and he and her mom, Patti, would take her after games or practice to do extra work.
“We’re at the Jersey Shore, the sun is going down [and] you’re just going to shoot with your dad,” Dara said. “That’s perfect for me on a summer night at any age.”
Dara holds the Mabrey sister record with 301 career 3-pointers over five seasons, hitting 155 at Virginia Tech. Without her 33 in the extra COVID year she took this season, she has 268. Marina, who was traded last month from the Dallas Wings to the Chicago Sky, holds the Fighting Irish record with 274. Michaela is fifth with 228. They collectively have 803, a number Dara credits to her parents’ support. Patti can tell even today when an attempt is off the mark.
“I’ll freaking hear her sometimes from the crowd,” Dara said. “She’ll be like, ‘Short,’ and I’m like, ‘Shut up, you’re so annoying that you know everything.’ But that just shows the time and dedication that they put into us as parents. It’s incredible what they’ve done and the example of what they’ve set for us.”
All five Mabreys, each separated by three years, played collegiately. Roy, the oldest sibling, was all-conference at Saint Anselm and Ryan, the youngest who took an extra year at La Lumiere boarding school in Indiana, is a freshman guard at Miami (Ohio). All five siblings are guards, but Dara, who is the shortest by several inches at 5-foot-7, has always been “just kind of different.”
“That’s kind of the reason that I carry a chip on my shoulder,” Dara said. “Because growing up I had to work harder than everybody else. I wasn’t given the 6-foot wingspan that my sisters were given and the height that my brothers were given.”
The second thing to know about the Mabrey sisters’ legacy is that while it prospered in Indiana, it was molded in New Jersey. All three have a chip-on-your-shoulder tenacity, an ultimate all-out, dialed-in, hard-nosed, trash-talking approach.
“We all have our individual personalities, but collectively we have that same Jersey style that is blunt [and] to the point,” Michaela said. “We’re going to do whatever is asked of us, we’re going to play our absolute hardest, and we’re going to do whatever is needed.”
The siblings are very close — Dara calls Ryan “the best thing since sliced bread” — and lived a childhood of “super competitive” basketball games at the park. In Dara’s eyes, there was no group more competitive to go against than family.
“You hate losing to your sibling because you’re going to hear about it the rest of the day,” Dara said. “We were able to give it our all against our siblings every single day, which is a very unique thing. And definitely part of the reason why we have such a competitive spirit and that fire I have underneath me at all times. Because it gave you an edge.”
The support was always there afterward and into today. Even if Marina “beat my ass in a one-on-one,” Dara said her sister would turn around and tell her how much she admires her shot. The WNBA star is playing in Italy during the league’s offseason and regularly watches Fighting Irish games in the early hours of the morning. She’ll often text Michaela with input and actively supports Dara on social media, calling her “my why” after the knee injury.
It’s the same approach Dara and Ryan, who often visited Dara last season in South Bend, took in early January. After each had poor shooting nights, they said they’d do it for each other, and Ryan came out to hit a season-high five 3s in a win against Buffalo.
“There are more special moments that I can use in my life later on that I’m more appreciative of,” Dara said, “because all of our siblings have an understanding that basketball is going to come to an end one day.”
Mabrey sisters’ unique paths to Notre Dame
Notre Dame came into Michaela’s recruiting process a bit later than other schools. The 5-foot-9 four-star guard had never been to South Bend, but her dad, Roy, had a few times for football games and told her if the school ever recruited her, she had to at least visit.
“You’ve got to go see it,” Michaela said, recalling the conversation while in the lobby of Rolfs Athletic Hall, featuring identical men’s and women’s basketball facilities mirroring each other. “And then I came here and it was done. As soon as I came here I knew I wanted to come here [to play].”
Michaela enrolled in the fall of 2012, fresh off of Notre Dame’s first championship game berth since Ivey’s 2001 team. Ivey, one of the program’s greatest point guards, began recruiting Marina, who had overlapped with Michaela for one season at Manasquan (New Jersey) High School.
The Fighting Irish swept the Big East slate en route to the 2013 Final Four and the following season swept their first ACC season schedule to reach the 2014 national championship game, their only loss of the season. Michaela said she was nervous about Marina’s impending decision, but wanted her to have her own recruiting process. Even though she really wanted the 5-foot-11 five-star guard to join her, she didn’t want to step in and persuade her.
The November of Michaela’s junior year, days before tipoff to what would become a second consecutive run to the title game, Marina signed to play at Notre Dame. She said the program “found me through my sister,” and in their one season together, they went 33-2 (16-0 ACC) and lost in the 2016 NCAA regional semifinal. They also set a Guinness World Record.
That roster featured freshman Arike Ogunbowale with Jackie Young signed as a recruit, setting up an even more decorated stretch. Notre Dame reached the championship game again in 2017 and broke through to win it in 2018 on the iconic Ogunbowale buzzer-beater against Mississippi State.
Dara watched the success from New Jersey as she was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year twice, the only Mabrey sister to do so, and experienced a recruitment process that was “just a little different.” The prep write-ups would annoy her with comparisons like, “similar perimeter shooting, but not as long as her older sister.”
“And I’m like, all right, cool, whatever, the world can have their view about me, but that also developed my edge,” Dara said.
Dara said she received a lot of questions about her sisters and Notre Dame. In talks with her AAU coaches, recruiters would assume her mind was already made up. And Dara, reflecting six years later, said she couldn’t blame them. She would probably do the same in their position.
“But it made me dig deeper into thinking about what I truly wanted when I got to school and growing into a young woman,” Dara said. “It was tough getting recruited in high school just because people had their pre-recruiting thoughts about where I was going to go.”
Dara said the offer from Notre Dame was “not fully on the table,” something she felt wasn’t anyone else’s business to know. She didn’t put it out there publicly, not unlike any other high school recruit.
“Dara, she always wanted to come here,” said Michaela, who worked as an assistant for Miami, Miami (Ohio) and LSU before joining Notre Dame’s staff in 2019. “But it’s just crazy how all of our paths were different.”
Dara’s AAU coaches encouraged her to find a school that fit what she wanted and wanted her back. She decided on Virginia Tech with no second thoughts, faced Marina for one season in the ACC and experienced a WNIT Sweet 16 run as a freshman, shooting a team-best 46.2% from beyond the arc. The Hokies improved from 6-10 in the ACC to 11-7 when she was a sophomore.
Dara decided to make the difficult decision to enter the transfer portal in March 2020, an odd time given the NCAA tournament had been canceled days earlier and people were beginning to quarantine at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Michaela and Dara were both home in New Jersey when McGraw reached out to Dara with interest in adding her to the Irish roster.
A week later, the four-time Associated Press National Coach of the Year and 2017 Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer sent shock waves through the college basketball world by announcing her retirement. Dara remembered thinking how the coach she knew since she was a child, and who had played a major role in her family, wouldn’t be there anymore. The Mabrey family is a loyal group and was sad about the departure.
Ivey, who had left to work as an assistant with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies for 2019-20, was immediately named the next head coach. She knew when she accepted the job she wanted to pursue point guard Olivia Miles, ranked No. 2 in the 2021 class, and Sonia Citron, another five-star guard. Then she wanted to go for Dara, a player who knew the program’s legacy firsthand.
“The fact that it all came full circle that my first head coaching job was here at Notre Dame and she was available for me to try and recruit in the transfer portal was unbelievable,” Ivey said.
Michaela concurred that Ivey “1,000% wanted Dara as badly as Coach McGraw did.” But the process to have her admitted to Notre Dame and transfer credits dragged on amid COVID-19 protocols and slowdowns. When it was made official, they still had to wait for the NCAA to grant her permission to play immediately rather than sit out a year.
“I really knew at the end of the day with my heart that I wanted to come here and it was the easiest yes of my life,” Dara said. “Niele was the one, that amazing assistant coach when I was a little girl and my feet didn’t touch the ground on the bench.”
Tied together, but with individual marks
Dara didn’t intend to follow her sisters, nor does she want anyone to view it that way. What people forget, she said, is that the shoes she is in now were ones she dreamed of being in before. The footprints are in the same spots, yes, yet they are not identically placed.
“The brain change was I can still create my own path here,” Dara said. “And it’s a new coach. Now I’m a part of the Niele Ivey era.”
The Fighting Irish program experienced a sharp fall after the 2019 title game appearance when it lost all five starters, including junior guard Young, to the WNBA. The ’19-20 roster returned 8.7% of minutes played, 5.6% of its scoring and went 13-18. It was the program’s first losing season since 1991-92 and it fell on Ivey to course correct. She believed Mabrey to be an experienced guard who knew the program, knew the history and could “help us get back to how we were.”
“That was No. 1 for me, was making sure that I brought in the right fit for my system and the right high-character players that really can lock in on the culture that I’m building,” Ivey said. “And that speaks a lot that Dara fit that mold perfectly.”
Dara and then-freshman Maddy Westbeld, whose older sister, Kathryn, was a freshman on the 2018 title team, started every game and led the team in total points. They went 10-10 (8-7 ACC) and Miles enrolled early to play in six games. With Citron in the fold for 2021-22, Notre Dame (24-9, 12-5) stormed back into the NCAA tournament and put the nation on notice with a monster 44-point win over No. 4-seeded Oklahoma. Dara, playing in her first tournament, made seven 3s in the record win, tying Marina for most made 3s by an Irish player in a tournament game.
Her largest contribution is exactly why Ivey pursued her so quickly. Dara has developed a trust with teammates that allows her to lead by example and with confidence. Not to mention she’s committed to the goal in typical Jersey all-in style.
“She’s so incredibly coachable,” Michaela said. “Whatever you tell her, she’s like a sponge, she wants to hear everything, she wants to know everything, she wants to know what she’s doing wrong.”
Dara described herself as a “very happy person” who wants to give confidence to “every other woman everywhere.” Ivey described her as “an energizer” who always has a positive outlook and understands the value of her position. And she serves as an extension of Ivey as a “voice of reason” to properly relay what coaches need.
“You need that person in the locker room that can share that message and be on the same page with what I’m trying to accomplish,” Ivey said.
It’s her brain and personality (“a contagious energy of light and sunshine,” as described by Dara), not her last name, that has made her a favorite in South Bend. None of the coaches are telling her to be more like Michaela or Marina. Fans aren’t bugging her about it. It feels like family in the best way.
“That developed a lot of growth in my mindset just knowing that it’s not about your sisters,” Dara said. “I’ve embraced the fact that I have two sisters [who went] to Final Fours, win national championships here. That is so cool. Who else in the world can say that? It’s cool, really cool.”
Dara used to tire of the comparisons to her older sisters, something she thinks pushed her into doing things her own “screw this, this and that” way when she was younger.
“And it’s like, no, wait a second, because your sisters are walking in excellence right now at the University of Notre Dame [as] women’s basketball players getting a degree from the best university in the country,” Dara said. “Like, stop basically. Look at that opportunity.”
The three are all over the Notre Dame record books, often in bunches. Dara and Marina are tied with two other players for most 3-pointers in a game (seven). Dara and Michaela are tied with two more players for second-most attempts (14). They are all top-10 in most 3-pointers made in a season (Marina has three entries and Michaela has two). And all are ranked top six in most 3-pointers as a senior, led by Marina (80, second), Dara (73, third) and Michaela (64, sixth). Ivey is also on the list at seventh (61).
“We all got to experience what this place has to offer at different points and it’s changed us for the better. All of us,” Michaela said. “And it’s something that we’ll always have together. All three of us will always have this special place and this special bond that we created here.”
Dara will often look up in the Notre Dame gym to see the banner for Marina, a woman who’s both her sister and role model. She credits Marina for showing her how to love the game “in a healthy way” and helping her mature and blossom into her own person. When Dara sat down in the Notre Dame film room in January to reflect on her career, it was Marina she could most connect to since they, along with Ryan, were the siblings currently playing.
Now that connection is with Michaela as the oldest sister takes Dara under her belt and shows her what it looks like from the bench again — this time at the front for players to seek help and guidance through a strong ACC gauntlet rather than water bottles.
A pause, but not the end of the road
Variations of the phrase, “wherever my feet are, I’m supposed to be,” are used by Dara multiple times when she verbally re-steps her path to Notre Dame. It’s a developed mindset that has served her well the last few weeks.
“That’s something that, pretty recently, I’ve fully accepted,” Dara said during a phone call with Yahoo Sports on Monday. “I’m in a place where I’m excited to see what [my injury] is really going to do for me because I know right now, if it hurts this bad physically, mentally and emotionally, at some point down the road, I’m going to feel the reverse effects of it and be like — I keep telling myself — an indestructible force.”
The worst injury she had previously was a “weird” incident in high school when her thumb was caught in her jersey. Her hand swelled up badly, but within a week she was fine. To not experience any significant injuries is remarkable.
The knee injury she sustained was complicated in part by the blood clot and taking blood thinners has delayed surgery. There have been phases to her mental recovery: shock, grief, asking “why me” and now, acceptance. A month out, she said she’s gone through things she never thought she could. She’s learned enough about the human body that she joked she thinks she’s a doctor. Her relationship with junior forward Natalija Marshall, her best friend and roommate, has strengthened since she can fully understand the injuries Marshall has endured. Every time the rehab is hard, she embraces the healing and strength of it.
Notre Dame, which went 9-2 with close losses to NC State and Duke since her injury, earned two gritty wins against Louisville in the season’s final 10 days to secure the ACC title and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament that began Wednesday in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Fighting Irish, who might also be without Miles due to a knee injury, don’t play until Friday at 2 p.m. ET, and Dara will be there on the sideline using her established voice to advise players and tell Michaela what she’s seeing.
“It really just goes to show the hard work that I put in leadership-wise is definitely still there even if I’m not physically out there on the court with them,” Dara said.
Another positive she’s seen is the success of Ryan and Marina in their own playing careers. Ryan scored his season high in one of the first Miami (Ohio) games after her injury and is scoring at a higher average than before it. Marina is playing some of her best basketball with Beretta Famila Schio in Italy and was named MVP of the match for her 32-point performance over the weekend. The club is in contention for the top of Group B play in Euroleague.
“Even if I have to go through physical pain every day, if it’s benefitting my loved ones and my family, I’m going to take that pain with me and put it on my back because I love to see the people that I love succeed,” Dara said.
In January, Dara said she planned to enter the WNBA Draft or potentially play overseas. This week, she said she’s still processing the injury and wants to enjoy her last weeks at Notre Dame before stressing more about the future. “I’ve done enough of that,” she said. If she does play professionally, she said in January she was unsure how long because her real love is for broadcasting and TV. She’s wanted to be in front of the camera ever since she was an unaware 6-year-old attempting to hold a talk show at her grandfather’s funeral. She’s worked with Irish media at football and volleyball games and stepped in to guest host this week’s fourth episode of “The Niele Ivey Show.”
Back in the Irish practice facilities in January, Ivey lights up when asked about Dara’s future in broadcasting.
“I personally think she’s going to be phenomenal,” Ivey said, “because she has the passion, she’s articulate, she has played, she has so much experience, she has so much wisdom, she has a very high IQ and she’s comfortable in front of a camera.”
Said Michaela: “She’s going to kill it. She’s going to be so good. She’s such a confident kid and she really prepares well, she speaks well, she knows exactly what she wants.”
The decade of sharp-shooting Mabrey sisters playing at Notre Dame is closing. A culmination at the Final Four as it did that first year for Michaela, and again for Marina, would be poetic, but not the point. Not every path has to look the same and not every footprint fits, as Dara could attest. Her story is a little different, and one of her legacies will be leading the Irish back to the ACC summit in the Ivey era. She said she has a deeper appreciation for where she’s at and the next steps she takes will be in similar excellence to the older Mabreys. The program led Michaela to her dream of coaching and Marina to her dream of playing professionally.
“I’m confident,” Dara said, “that the same thing is going to happen to me.”