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Irish begin trip to Preseason NIT

Joe Hettler | Friday, November 12, 2004

Notre Dame can only imagine what challenges Illinois State will present tonight in the opening round of the Preseason National Invitation Tourn-ament at the Joyce Center.

The Redbirds, like the Irish, have not played a game this season. Since Illinois State is from a different conference, No. 10/11 Notre Dame couldn’t acquire any tape of their home-opening opponent, either.

“It’s really hard. We can’t even get anything from the end of last year so it’s a little bit more difficult [to prepare],” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “It makes it hard because you don’t have the scouting, and you don’t know exactly what to take away [from film study] until the game.”

McGraw said the best Notre Dame could do in scouting Illinois State was looking at film from Southwest Missouri State last season. The Irish beat the Lady Bears in the first round of the NCAA tournament 69-65 at the Joyce Center in March.

“They’re the same kind of team [as Southwest Missouri State]. They have great shooters, great 3-pointer shooters, and they’re an up-tempo team that plays great defense,” said McGraw, who is entering her 19th season as Notre Dame’s head coach. “It’s really going to be a challenge for us.”

The Lady Bears enter their season-opening game a little beat up. Injuries have plagued several players throughout the preseason, although just returning starter Jaci McCormick will miss tonight’s contest.

The Redbirds had their first winning season in seven years during the 2003-04 campaign. They return three starters from last season’s squad as coach Robin Pingeton tries to rebuild a program that has struggled in recent years.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame hopes to begin its season better than a year ago, when the Irish were just 7-6 in their first 13 games before finishing the season at 21-11 with a Sweet 16 berth.

“It’s critical for us to get off to a good start,” McGraw said. “We played a lot of tough teams on the road [last year]. Obviously it was tough, this year I think we have a few more home games, so hopefully that will prepare us a little bit more.”

McGraw knows her team should have an easier time getting into the flow of the game at the Joyce Center – a place Notre Dame didn’t lose at last season.

“We have great fans,” McGraw said. “We love our fans because they’re so into the game and they’re so knowledgeable about the game. They just seem to have a sense of when we need them.”

The Irish will start the same five players as they have during their two exhibition game victories – Megan Duffy and Breona Gray at the guards, Jacqueline Batteast and Courtney LaVere at forwards and Teresa Borton at center.

Batteast has already received all kinds of national acclaim and preseason awards. The returning all-American averaged 16 points and 8.6 rebounds per game last season. She will be a leading candidate for Big East Player of the Year and is being mentioned by many as the best all-around player in the country.

McGraw doesn’t downplay Batteast’s abilities, but is emphasizing other scoring options from her team.

“[Batteast is] probably going to see a lot of double teams,” McGraw said. “We’re just expecting her to play like she did last year, same kind of game. We hope to help her more. The rest of our players, I think, need to step up and give her a little more help.”

Notre Dame will not only rely on Batteast and the other returning players, but also on a talented and athletic freshman class. Guard Tulyah Gaines averaged over 20 points a game as a high school senior in Nevada. Fellow guard Charel Allen also had an impressive high school career and averaged 26 points her final season. Center Melissa D’Amico was a New York all-state selection her senior season. All three should see playing time early on this season.

Whether freshman or senior, Notre Dame’s players should be ready for opening night, although McGraw knows with that added anticipation comes more mistakes.

“I think the first game you’re always a little bit excited and a little bit nervous,” McGraw said. “It’s certainly not going to be fundamentally the best game we’re going to play this year.”