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Irish don’t play well at USC, but survive

Joe Hettler | Tuesday, November 30, 2004

LOS ANGELES – Muffet McGraw looked like a helpless leader Friday night, watching her team slowly fall apart to a less-talented, more-energetic USC squad.

She paced. She shook her head. She yelled and scream-ed. But little McGraw didcould change Notre Dame’s performance.

Trailing by five points with seven minutes remaining, Notre Dame looked dead.

In a game like this last season on the road, the Irish would have surely lost. But Friday, Notre Dame picked itself up off the Los Angeles Sports Arena floor after blowing a nine-point halftime lead in less than four minutes to make the big plays and ultimately sneak away with a 60-56 victory.

The team can take much from this hard-fought victory. The good news – the Irish faced stiff adversity, and came out on top in their first road game of the season. The bad news – Notre Dame looked nothing like the team that beat top-10 Duke and Ohio State just a few days ago.

For much of the contest, it appeared like the Irish had taken out the blueprint from the 2003-04 season on ‘How To Lose Road Games,’ and then followed it to a T. The Irish made uncharacteristic turnovers, couldn’t hit key shots, didn’t rebound, missed free throws, got into foul trouble and didn’t play anywhere near their potential.

Breona Gray summed up most of Notre Dame’s night when she stole a pass with 7:13 left in the game. Gray raced down the court for the basket, looking to cut the Trojan lead to one. Instead of making a seemingly easy layup, Gray lost control of the ball out of bounds – despite not being touched.

Much like that play, Notre Dame shot themselves in the foot time and again Friday against a much weaker opponent.

Yet, the Irish didn’t quit or fold. They didn’t panic when USC sprinted to a 20-7 run to begin the second half. Instead, Notre Dame found a way to win.

“We weren’t running our offense. Mentally I don’t think we played a great game,” McGraw said. “But you have to accept that for the first road game. I think they’re still a little gun-shy on the road, so this gives them a lot of confidence.”

The biggest surprise about this come-from-behind victory was that Notre Dame’s freshmen led the charge. Specific-ally, Melissa D’Amico.

With Notre Dame’s lead cut to 18-16 in the first half, the center checked in and promptly scored five straight points – including a 3-point play – then blocked a shot that lead to a breakaway layup for Jacqueline Batteast. Just like that, the Irish had a nine-point edge at 25-16.

D’Amico and the Irish played with resilience in their first road game of the season. They struggled for much of the game, but never quit. It takes a certain level of toughness to win on the road and the Irish showed that Friday evening.

Courtney LaVere battled in the paint all game, before painfully hitting the court after spraining her ankle in the second half. With tears in her eyes, LaVere hobbled to the end of the bench, stuck watching her team during the final minutes.

Guard Megan Duffy got jacked in the neck with an elbow, which limited her speaking abilities for some of the second half. Despite that, she performed the best of any Notre Dame player.

Simply put, Notre Dame wouldn’t allow USC to win. The Irish made the big shot when it mattered the most. They created the crucial turnover when USC started to regain momentum. They secured the key rebound when the Trojans desperately needed another shot.

“We really showed our poise at the end,” McGraw said.

That they did. The Irish found a way to pass their first road test of the season – albeit barely. But a ‘W’ is a ‘W’- no matter how ugly or painful it is to watch.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Joe Hettler at jhettler@nd.edu