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Irish start season slow, finish on tear to advance to NCAAs

Joe Hettler | Wednesday, May 12, 2004

If it wasn’t a 180-degree turnaround, it was pretty close.Heading back to South Bend following an upset road loss to a weak Georgetown team 76-73 in early January – in which Notre Dame allowed the Hoyas to score seven points in the final 27 seconds – coach Muffet McGraw knew the team needed to turn things around quickly. The Irish had a grueling upcoming schedule and were just 7-6, 0-1 in Big East play. It was time to sink or swim.When the season finally ended in late March Notre Dame (21-11) had reeled off 14 wins in its last 19 games, advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in eight years and given No.1-seeded Penn State all it could handle for a bid to the Elite Eight, before losing 55-49.The Irish had several reoccurring themes throughout the season – they went a perfect 15-0 at home, struggled on the road and were led by junior All-American honorable mention recipient Jacqueline Batteast. Batteast averaged 16.0 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, while starting all 32 games for the Irish. She also added 13 double-doubles and scored at least 20 points 10 times. She was named the team’s MVP at the end-of-the-year banquet and was a first-team all-Big East selection and honorable mention AP All-American.”Jackie was just really incredible this season,” McGraw said. “We’re really pleased with her. She feels really good about the way she played in the tournament, She proved why she is going to be one of the top five players in the nation next season.”Besides Batteast, McGraw regularly started seniors Le’Tania Severe and Monique Hernandez, sophomore Megan Duffy and either junior Teresa Borton or sophomore Courtney LaVere. Duffy was second on the team with 9.9 points per game and also dished out 3.9 assists per game. She was named the Big East Most Improved Player at the end of the season.The Irish started the season ranked No. 15 and knocked off No. 22 Auburn in the first game of the season. The win over a difficult foe would be a sign of success to come for the Irish, who would post a 7-4 mark against ranked opponents. After the opening win against Auburn, Notre Dame would go through a frustrating up-and-down stretch over the next month and a half that saw the team get blown out by Tennessee and Michigan State, and then string together five wins in six games before falling to Purdue and Georgetown. At 7-6 and 0-1 in conference play, the Irish suddenly found the consistency they had lacked all season and made their run for the NCAA Tournament. From Jan. 10 to Feb. 4, the team went 7-1 and beat five straight ranked opponents, including a huge upset of then-No. 4 and eventual national champion Connecticut 66-51 at the Joyce Center. That spurt gave the Irish confidence heading into an easier part of their schedule. Notre Dame finished the regular season at 19-9 and 12-4 conference mark – good enough for a second-place finish behind Connecticut. After bowing out in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, the Irish were pleasantly surprised to earn a five-seed for the NCAA Tournament. Notre Dame also had the advantage of playing its first two games at the Joyce Center because of predetermined first- and second-round sites. The Irish nearly saw their season come to an abrupt end in the first round against No. 12 Southwest Missouri State. The Lady Bears used a strong spurt to end the first half and played the Irish tough throughout the second half to send the game to overtime. But in the extra period, Notre Dame took command and finished off Southwest Missouri State 69-65 to advance to the second round. With a berth in the Sweet Sixteen on the line, Notre Dame – led by Batteast – completely dominated upset-minded No. 13 seed Middle Tennessee State. Batteast scored 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in just 28 minutes, and the Irish were never threatened in moving on to the Sweet 16. In Connecticut, Notre Dame faced a tough Penn State that had been ranked in the top 10 for much of the year. The Irish played one of their best games of the season and had the ball in Batteast’s hands with the game tied and under a minute left – but the Nittany Lions held on for the six-point victory. “I’m proud of our effort. We competed and battled for forty minutes,” McGraw said after the loss. “We’ve come a long way since we were 7-6.”