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Women’s Basketball: UConn knocks squad from Big East tourney

Eric Retter | Monday, March 6, 2006

HARTFORD, CONN. – Megan Duffy had one shot at halftime of Notre Dame’s first round Big East Tournament game with South Florida Saturday, and she didn’t score a point until almost nine minutes into the second half.

But that didn’t stop the senior captain from taking control of the game’s latter stages and ending the game as the team’s leading scorer.

Duffy, whose three-pointer with 11:05 left in the game finally got her on the board, finished with 16 points, and her free throw shooting down the stretch (7-of-7 overall) helped the Irish take a late lead and hold on for a 73-66 victory over the Bulls in the first round of the 2006 Big East Tournament.

“At the end of the game is when she seems to just play her best,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “No matter how tired she is, no matter how many minutes she’s played, no matter how many times she’s been on the floor, you know that she’s going to step up, get to the line, and make free throws … I think she’s a really smart player, and that’s something that doesn’t really show up on the stat sheet.”

No. 10-seed Notre Dame avenged a 68-64 Jan. 28 overtime loss Saturday, topping the No. 7-seed Bulls in a game that McGraw feels should cement Notre Dame’s position in the NCAA tournament.

“I think this [win] is enough,” McGraw said. “We’re playing well right now. We’ve got four [wins] in a row.”

Despite Duffy’s early struggles, the Irish offense did not share in her troubles as it had for much of the season, scoring 31 points and shooting 41.4% from the field in the first half. In the final 47 seconds of the half, Notre Dame erased a seven-point deficit, and junior Crystal Erwin’s lay up as time expired – set up by a long pass from senior Courtney LaVere – tied the contest heading into the break, 31-31.

“I think that we’ve perfected the play very well,” LaVere said. “They just brought two players to me and I saw Crystal [Erwin] open and it was just a replay of Cincinnati [when we won at the buzzer on a similar play],” Lavere said.

McGraw was pleased after the game with the way her team played during Duffy’s funk.

“I thought to go in [to halftime] with a tie without Megan [Duffy] scoreless was really a great job by the rest of the team,” she said. “I think in the last 4:18 we scored a lot of points, more than we normally do, just by attacking the basket, so I think the rest of the team is starting to kind of rise to the occasion.”

For the second time this season, the Irish had five players in double figures, as Duffy, LaVere, junior Tulyah Gaines, sophomore Charel Allen and freshman Lindsay Schrader all scored at least ten points.

Schrader, who has shot just 50 percent from the free throw line this season, added two crucial foul shouts with 5:13 to play that cut the USF lead to 62-59 and helped add to her total of 14.

“I just didn’t think about, I just shot it,” Schrader said. “I’ve been thinking about [my free throws] too much so I just shot.”

The Irish did an excellent job containing South Florida forward Jessica Dickson, the nation’s leading scorer. While Dickson managed to score 16 points, the Notre Dame defense held her to just 6-of-21 shooting.

“Dickson’s one of the best players in the nation,” McGraw said. “She didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but she still had a great game with a double-double.”

While the Irish focused their primary efforts on shutting down forward Jessica Dickson, freshman guard Shanita Grace stepped up in a big way for the Bulls, scoring a game-high 24 points and shooting 4-of-5 from beyond the arc.

“I thought she just played a great game,” McGraw said. “I think maybe [she was] trying to prove that she belonged on the all-rookie team.”

Notes:

u The last time Notre Dame had five players in double figures was on Dec. 18 against Utah in the Dual in the Desert. The Irish won that game 68-55.

Connecticut 71, Notre Dame 60

Courtney LaVere loves playing at Connecticut and elevates her game whenever she plays in front of the Husky crowd, one of the most hostile in college basketball.

The rest of her team, however, did not share her enthusiasm Sunday, as the No. 2-seed Huskies eliminated Notre Dame 71-60 in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament in front of the largest crowd of the tournament’s first two days. Given the location, the game amounted to a Connecticut home game at the Hartford Civic Center.

LaVere scored 15 points on Sunday, well over her average of 8.8 points per game this season. Last season, in Notre Dame’s 65-59 upset at Connecticut on Jan. 30, 2005, LaVere scored 14 in just 23 minutes off the bench.

“I really just enjoy playing UConn. We have a great rivalry,” LaVere said. “When I come when we’ve played them, I try to bring my best game, because I know it’s going to be a fight the whole time. I feel as long as I can play as hard as I can, we’ll have a good chance.”

But for as well as LaVere played, the Irish never had a chance down the stretch, unable to significantly slice into the double-digit Husky advantage. Trailing by 14 at the break, Notre Dame waited until the game’s final minutes to make the score respectable.

Early in the game, LaVere gave the Irish a chance. The team jumped out to an early 8-5 lead as the senior forward scored six of Notre Dame’s first eight points.

Once LaVere sat down after getting her second foul just 9:07 into the game, the Huskies started to dominate the game. Behind strong performances from their three seniors, Ann Strother, Barbara Turner and Willnett Crockett – who combined for 26 first-half points off 11-of-13 shooting – the Huskies took a commanding 36-18 lead with 2:19 to play in the half before the Irish eventually fought back to make it a 38-24 margin. In large part because of its seniors, Connecticut shot 62 percent from the floor in the first half.

“Connecticut’s a great team,” McGraw said afterwards. “They were just on.”

Despite already having two fouls, LaVere reentered the game with 3:59 to play and picked up her third foul 1:40 later before she could take a shot.

“We weren’t getting enough offense [out of our other players],” McGraw said, explaining the LaVere’s first half re-entry. “We felt like she was scoring, we weren’t getting any production out of the other posts, so we needed to come back with her. She’s smart enough to play with two fouls.”

Duffy was held to just three points in the first half – her second consecutive sub-par first half of the tournament. But much like she did during Notre Dame’s 73-66 win over South Florida, she exploded in the second half, shooting 5-of7 from the floor and scoring a game-high 20 points. Duffy, a 5-foot-7 guard, also pulled down a team-high six rebounds.

“I tried to be a little more aggressive in the second half, but really, I’ve got to learn to put two halves together,” Duffy said. “Especially at this point in the season, I’ve got to be able to carry a load offensively in the first half as well as the second half.”

Although it trailed by as many as 21 points in the second half, Notre Dame continued to play hard until the final buzzer.

“We fought hard. I don’t think we ever put our heads down and quit,” McGraw said. “[We] brought it back to 11, and really, it should have been a little closer if we had just gotten a couple of little things, so, I was really proud of their effort.”

McGraw was especially pleased with her team’s performance given the setting, which, though officially a neutral site, was a de-facto home game for Connecticut.

“I was really proud of the seniors, I thought they really fought hard,” she said. “I think it’s a tough environment for our players to come in here and experience that kind of crowd, and then play well.”

The Irish, who anticipate an NCAA tournament bid, will now wait until Selection Monday on March 13 to see who and where they will next play.