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So close, yet…

Heather VanHoegarden | Monday, March 29, 2004

HARTFORD, Conn. – They played the defense, got the rebounds and played hard for 39 minutes, but when it came down to the last minute, the tank was empty and the Irish – green jerseys and all – were going home.

Despite a valiant effort, fifth-seeded Notre Dame (21-11) was unable to knock off top-seeded Penn State (28-5) in a 55-49 loss in the NCAA Regional semifinal game.

“I was really proud of our team,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I thought we competed, I thought we battled.”

The game went back and forth, with the lead switching hands 10 times. And with 57 seconds remaining and the game tied at 49, the Irish had their chance. But honorable mention All-American forward Jacqueline Batteast missed a jump shot, and Courtney LaVere missed a jumper of her own. Penn State All-American Kelly Mazzante hit a baseline jumper with 46 seconds to play, and Penn State was on their way to the Elite Eight.

Batteast finished with 22 points (8-for-22 from the field) and 12 rebounds for the Irish, who donned green jerseys for the first, and last, time this season.

And the Irish responded to the change in uniform by playing outstanding basketball the entire way. They turned the ball over just four times in the first half and 10 times in the game – a season-low. But when Notre Dame did turn it over, Penn State made them pay – cashing in 17 points off turnovers.

“It seemed like all of our turnovers really hurt us,” McGraw said. “We really had some bad ones, but when you look at the number 10, that’s really great for us.”

After starting off slow, the Irish settled down to go ahead 14-13 on a Katy Flecky 3-pointer with 8:45 to play in the first half. The game went back and forth until halftime, with Notre Dame holding as much as a five-point lead, before the Nittany Lions hit a pair of threes to go up 23-22 at the half.

In the second half, it was much of the same, as the Irish played outstanding zone defense. They forced the guard-oriented Nittany Lions out of their comfort zone, forcing 14 turnovers by keeping the guards well behind the three-point line.

“[The zone] certainly did what we wanted it to do,” McGraw said. “They’re a very good team; they shoot a lot of threes. We’ve played pretty good defense since the Big East season began, so that was a great effort, and it’s pretty much what we’ve been doing.”

The Notre Dame defense gave the No. 1 seed all they could handle. Mazzante was held to 17 points on just 6-for-16 shooting. But senior Jessica Brungo stepped up instead. She had a season-high 20 points on 8-for-19 shooting.

“I can only sit here and say positive things about the way the University of Notre Dame’s team played,” Penn State coach Rene Portland said. “They came in here with a great game plan to stop us. They gave us a hard time defensively.”

The Irish set themselves up for the win, but with 32 seconds left and down 51-49, senior Le’Tania Severe tried to enter the ball into Batteast, but Mazzante leapt up and grabbed the pass. The Irish then fouled Reicina Russell, who missed the front end of a one-and-one, but the Irish were unable to corral the rebound. Notre Dame was then down by four with 28 seconds to play and did not score the rest of the way.

“Aside from the ball not going in the basket for us, I think we played about as well as we can play, and I’m proud of that to finish on that note,” McGraw said.

Severe finished with nine points, five rebounds and six steals. She had more steals than the entire Penn State team. Meanwhile, LaVere added eight points on 4-for-14 shooting. As a team the Irish shot 32.2 percent from the field, compared to Penn State’s 37.5 percent. But for Notre Dame, it was arguably the best game they played all season, especially on the road.

“We came a long way since we were 7-6,” McGraw said. “We’ll be back next year.”

Notes:

uWith the loss, Notre Dame has yet to win in the Hartford Civic Center in four appearances. Their last loss came in the Big East Quarterfinals to Rutgers Mar. 3, 61-55.

uMuffet McGraw was familiar with Penn State head coach Rene Portland and assistant Annie Troyan. Portland coached McGraw at Saint Joseph’s during her senior year, when they attained a No. 3 national ranking. Troyan, meanwhile, played for McGraw at Archbishop Carroll High School in Radnor, Penn., when McGraw took over after graduating from Saint Joseph’s.