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Win over Purdue gives Irish confidence

Joe Hettler | Monday, January 17, 2005

Few 13-3, top-10 teams ever have must-win games in January against a non-conference opponent. But that’s where Irish coach Muffet McGraw thought her team was, heading into a matchup against No. 20 Purdue on Sunday.In its two previous games, Notre Dame played sloppy, inconsistent and downright ugly basketball in consecutive losses to Villanova and Connecticut. They looked like an NIT-caliber team, not a squad that won 13 of its first 14 games. After the defeats, McGraw believed her team was at a possible turning point in the season. With several talented opponents waiting on the schedule in the near future, the longtime coach knew the Irish needed a win.After 40 dominating minutes of basketball, Notre Dame delivered just that – in the form of an 86-69 crushing of Purdue. “It’s a huge shot of confidence for us,” McGraw said. “We really needed a win tonight. I thought our season was kind of on the brink of going either way at this point. We started off so well and we needed to keep it going. This game gives us the confidence we need.”And just like that, the Irish are back playing well in all aspects of the game. Their intensity is back. Their aggressive play is back. And, most importantly, their swagger is back.All those characteristics – characteristics that made this team one of the best in the nation during the early stretch of the season – led Notre Dame back were it should be Sunday – in the win column.Up until last week, Notre Dame looked like a lock to cruise into the NCAA tournament in March with a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the bag after playing impressively through 14 games. They drained every big shot, grabbed every crucial rebound and made every key defensive stand. If one player had a rough night, someone else picked up the slack. When the game was close in the waning minutes, Notre Dame played fearless. Simply put, the Irish could do no wrong.Then came the Villanova and Connecticut games. The Irish were pushed around and didn’t make the plays down the stretch to beat Villanova, then watched helplessly as a four-loss Connecticut team smoked them at home.Suddenly, the intensity, the confidence and the swagger were gone. In their place was a team searching for answers.But just as quickly as Notre Dame had lost its confidence, they found it again by blowing out their intrastate rival. They went back to playing Notre Dame basketball. They hustled on defense and spread the ball around on offense. Megan Duffy played superbly at the point, scoring 17 first-half points, while Jacqueline Batteast had a typical evening – 21 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Teresa Borton added 18 and the rest of the team contributed with solid nights as the Irish pulled away midway through the first half.”Coming off two losses we were angry more than anything,” Duffy said. “I think confidence was down a little bit but it was more so the fact that we needed a win and it was nice we got it against Purdue. We just focused on whatever it takes to get a win that’s what we have to do and we did that tonight.”The Irish are in the midst of likely their toughest stretch of games this season. The team has road contests against Syracuse and Connecticut and Rutgers and Boston College at home in four of its next five games. This is when Notre Dame needs to begin playing its best basketball as the schedule turns over into February.It looked like the Irish would be falling during this stretch, not rising after the two losses in conference. But McGraw believed her team had the ability and toughness to overcome some mid-season adversity. She believed this team wouldn’t fold when faced with challenges. She believed her team would overcome the obstacles in its way.Sunday against a ranked Purdue team, McGraw’s players proved her right.”We just really came out fighting and I think that’s how you tell the character of your team – how they respond after a loss,” McGraw said. “I thought we responded really well.”

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