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Senior makes stunning return

Joe Hettler | Monday, November 24, 2003

Jeneka Joyce grabbed the loose ball, spotted up from 24-feet out and drained her third 3-pointer in less than five minutes in the second half of Notre Dame’s 74-57 win over Valparaiso Friday night.You’ll have to excuse Joyce for shooting whenever she was open -even if it was from nearly five feet beyond the 3-point arc. The senior had been waiting a long time to get back on the court.Joyce saw her first action since March 17, 2002 in Notre Dame’s home-opener, and the shooting guard made the most of it. She hit all three of her 3-point attempts and, as Valparaiso coach Keith Freeman said after the game, “put the nail in the coffin” for the Crusaders’ hopes of winning.Joyce was the difference-maker, not only making clutch shots but energizing her teammates and fans in the Joyce Center. When the first 3-pointer went through with 14:09 left in the game, stern-faced Irish coach Muffet McGraw threw her hands in the air and broke into a huge smile as her senior guard backpedaled down the court with an equally large smile. That shot put Notre Dame ahead 46-31, its largest lead to that point in the game. On Joyce’s next two 3-pointers, the crowd erupted even louder as each shot swished through the hoop.Joyce’s shooting has always been efficient. Keeping her healthy for any extended period of time has been the problem. She played in 25 games as a freshman in 2000-01 and connected on 38 percent of her 3-point attempts, but a combination of injuries caused Joyce to miss 11 games that year.She missed six more games because of an Achilles heel strain during her sophomore season and played in just 24 games, starting eight.By the time her junior year arrived, Joyce had been fighting through nagging injuries in the off-season, including a hip pointer, stress fractures and heel and ankle problems. After talking with McGraw, Joyce decided to sit out last season to fully recover and be completely healthy for the 2003-04 season.But injuries continued to bother the guard as she missed the first two games of this season with an ankle injury. Friday night, Joyce finally got back onto the court and made the most of her chances. Despite barely practicing this season, she played solid defense and ran the complicated Notre Dame offense well -not to mention three 3-pointers.But the most important part of Joyce’s performance Friday night was not that she helped Notre Dame beat a lowly 0-3 Valparaiso team. That should be expected. The biggest lesson the Irish learned in their home-opener was how crucial Joyce is to taking the team to another level. After losing shooting guard Alicia Ratay, who finished her career with the highest 3-point shooting percentage in Notre Dame history, McGraw knew her team would be hurting for perimeter offense. She decided to move forward Katy Flecky to the outside to give the Irish some 3-point potential, but the junior cannot be expected to carry the load. Guards Megan Duffy and Le’Tania Severe can both hit three’s, but they aren’t the sharpshooters that Joyce can be when she’s on. Joyce showed that ability against the Crusaders. The Irish will need her if they are going to make it far into the Big East and NCAA Tournament. But only three games into the season, Notre Dame and Joyce can’t worry whether the injury-prone guard will be healthy for the whole year. They can only embrace the moments when the senior gets a chance to show what she can do with the ball in her hands.Just like Friday night.