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Irish see freshman Allen step up, Erwin fight back

Joe Hettler | Thursday, November 18, 2004

Notre Dame got pushed around for the first two minutes of its game against No. 6 Duke Wednesday night. After that, the Irish pushed back – and did so with surprising toughness and aggression.

Freshman Charel Allen hustled after every loose ball, every Duke pass that came within 10 feet of her slim 5-foot-11 body and then made every big shot all night, despite playing with an apparent injury for much of the game.

Crystal Erwin bullied and bumped her way around in the paint, and, at one point, got face to face with her counterpart, Duke’s Mistie Williams. Teresa Borton and Courtney LaVere battled for offensive and defensive rebounds with Duke’s 6-foot-7 tower, Alison Bales.

And Notre Dame displayed some intestinal fortitude in its 76-65 win against the Blue Devils in the semifinals of the preseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament that last season’s team simply never had.

A big reason for that change was Allen. The thin guard from Monessen, Penn. rarely shows emotion on the court. Allen simply does anything her team needs, all the while keeping that same stone-hard, unassuming stare on her face.

Wednesday evening, Notre Dame fans got to see just how good this rapidly rising star will become in an Irish uniform.

With the Blue Devils desperately trying to stop hot-handed Jacqueline Batteast in the second half, Allen slipped into the crevices of Duke’s zone defense. Twice Allen knocked down critical 3-pointers that brought the Irish within three points at the 13:48 mark of the second half and tied the game at 9:37.

“She came of age today – she’s no longer a freshman,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “She just played a spectacular game.”

Allen finished with 16 points, three assists, three rebounds and two steals in 32 minutes. When Notre Dame needed a turnover, a basket or anything in between, Allen seemed to be there.

“She killed us,” Duke head coach Gail Goestenkors said.

Aside from Allen’s outstanding play, Notre Dame won because it learned quickly that letting the physical Blue Devils do as they pleased wasn’t going to work.

Erwin decided to do something about it.

Down three points with about 14 minutes left, McGraw put in Erwin to give the team a lift. The 6-foot-1 sophomore entangled herself with the aggressive Williams on several possessions before finally getting into the Blue Devil forward’s face. Even though Erwin picked up a questionable technical foul for the confrontation, she did much more for the Irish by sparking the Joyce Center crowd, and her teammates.

After Duke star Monique Currie made one-of-two free throws, Notre Dame took over the game. Trailing by four at the time, the Irish ended the game with a 35-20 run.

“I really think Crystal Erwin helped us [be aggressive],” McGraw said. “She gave us energy and changed the whole tone and gave us a positive, upbeat attitude coming into the game. That was really big.”

Notre Dame was a good team last season, but it took them 13 games and a mediocre 7-6 start, to realize just how good. This season’s squad has shown the ability to not only establish itself as a contender, but as a team to be feared. The Irish have the talent – that’s not a surprise to anyone. But what else they learned Wednesday is how to play with a swagger. They weren’t intimidated by the No. 6 team in the nation coming to South Bend for an early-season matchup.

When the Blue Devils threw a punch, the Irish came back with a combination. When Duke tried to get physical under the glass, Notre Dame didn’t shy away. And when one of the nation’s best teams – a team with a legitimate shot at a national title – wanted to rumble, it was McGraw’s squad who said “Bring it on.”

The 2004-05 Irish have proved in the beginning stages of the season that they will be in the national spotlight for the long-haul. This is a team that has all the parts to advance much farther than last season’s Sweet 16 group did.

McGraw put it best in the post-game press conference:

“We’re light-years away from last year at this point,” she said.

That’s scary for anyone in Notre Dame’s way this season.

Just ask No. 6 Duke.

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