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Irish finally starting to grow up

Joe Hettler | Thursday, February 5, 2004

A month ago, Notre Dame led by six points over Georgetown with 55 seconds remaining in its first Big East game of the season. Then, inexperience, immaturity and a collective mental and physical breakdown allowed George-town to finish the game with an 11-2 run and upset Notre Dame 76-73.It was Georgetown’s first win over Notre Dame in 18 years, and it sent the Irish, at the time 7-6 and 0-1, back to South Bend searching for answers to fix a season quickly sinking into mediocrity. Wednesday night, at the Joyce Center, Georgetown made another comeback by starting the second half on a 10-2 run to cut a 13-point Notre Dame halftime lead to five at 38-33 with 15:52 left.But this Notre Dame team wasn’t the same one that imploded against Georgetown in early January.Irish coach Muffet McGraw called a timeout, and then watched her team score 22 of the next 30 points to bury the Hoyas en route to a 66-52 victory.It’s official – Notre Dame has finally grown up.”I think it was a great opportunity for us to get a game back and see just how much we have improved since the last time we played them,” McGraw said.The Irish have searched for and struggled to find consistency over the past two seasons. Besides a couple of upset wins in the NCAA tournament in 2003, Notre Dame has not dominated its opponents for any extended period. Until the past three weeks of this season.Aside from a loss to West Virginia, Notre Dame has been nearly unstoppable. The Irish knocked off No. 4 Connecticut by 15, held No. 23 Villanova to 36 points and beat three other ranked foes en route to winning seven of their last eight games to improve to 14-7 (7-2) and regain a national ranking (No. 23).It’s easily been the most impressive stretch of basketball Notre Dame has played in the last two seasons. Outstanding defense should be given much of the credit for the turnaround. The Irish are allowing only 50 points a game to the opposition during this winning stretch. Notre Dame has also shut down opponents’ star players – holding Connecticut’s Diana Taurasi to 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting and Georgetown’s Rebekkah Brunson to only 12 points on a dismal 3-of-13 field goals.It’s been the enhanced defensive effort that has Notre Dame rolling through its Big East schedule. The Irish face just one more ranked foe in the regular season and are just one game behind conference-leading Connecticut for the Big East title.One month ago, none of this seemed possible. After the Georgetown loss, it appeared Notre Dame would completely collapse at any moment, especially with such a gruesome schedule on the horizon.But on that quiet plane ride home from D.C., the Irish regrouped and refocused for the rest of the season.At the first practice following the loss, McGraw and her staff went into the locker room to decide what to work on in the upcoming session. When they came out, the team was already practicing, waiting to put in more work.”I think that was a statement they made to the coaches and to themselves saying, ‘We’re ready to get down to business’ and ‘We’re ready to right the ship,'” McGraw said. “And they did. From that point on we’ve been on a great roll.”The Irish just hope that roll continues into the Big East and NCAA Tournament.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Joe Hettler at jhettler@nd.edu.