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Women’s basketball: Squad quickly rebounds after tough mid-winter stretch

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, May 18, 2007

The Irish returned from a three-game road trip Jan. 31 with three straight losses to Marquette, Connecticut and Pittsburgh. But in its darkest hour, Notre Dame turned its season around with a string of six conference wins.

The Irish rode the winning streak to the seventh seed in the Big East tournament. This finish, coupled with a win over California in the NCAA Tournament, showed Notre Dame’s tenacity this season after the Irish were picked to finish 11th in the Big East in the preseason polls.

“It was just a lot of chemistry and a lot of mental toughness,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “An attitude of we’ve got to prove everybody wrong.”

McGraw said her senior starters – forward Crystal Erwin and guard Breona Gray – guided the team through the rocky season.

“Our captains and our seniors, because they really, they got mad when they found out they got picked to finish 11th and they sort of, really got determined,” McGraw said.

Although the win streak propelled the Irish into the postseason, one of Notre Dame’s biggest wins came Dec. 6 against No. 6 Purdue at the Joyce Center. The Irish overcame an 11-point deficit to upset the Boilermakers 67-58.

“The Purdue game, that was a huge win because it gave us a lot of confidence early in the season, and so after that, when we looked at playing Connecticut and Rutgers, it prepared us for North Carolina [in the NCAA Tournament],” McGraw said.

The win was part of a trend for the Irish, who played well against every ranked team they faced this season, McGraw said.

“We played well as the underdog,” McGraw said. “We ran that role, and I think when teams came in we just had that feeling that we had nothing to lose – we’ve played big games before.”

The Irish carried their underdog role into the NCAA Tournament when they faced off against North Carolina in the second round. After downing California in the first round 62-59 behind clutch play from juniors Tulyah Gaines and Charel Allen, the Irish hung with the Tar Heels for most of the game. Allen got the Irish a 41-33 second half lead, but strong shooting from North Carolina down the stretch overcame that deficit, en route to a 60-51 win.

Allen was a constant presence in the box score – averaging 17 points per game and 19.2 in conference matchups – and was named to the first team All-Big East roster for the first time in her career. On Monday, Allen accepted an invitation to the USA Basketball U-21 Team Trials in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“She hunted her shot a little bit more, she looked for her opportunities a little bit more, and she’s still a team player and the whole team was happy that she was scoring,” McGraw said. “It was really just the case that she was able to do a little bit more, and that’s what we needed her to do.”

Notre Dame’s freshmen provided the final piece to the puzzle this season, allowing the Irish to succeed. Guards Ashley Barlow and Melissa Lechlitner and center Erica Williamson were strong forces off the bench all season.

“Ashley Barlow was coming of the bench and able to score and rebound and do a lot of things. Melissa Lechlitner – we expected those two to contribute, but not nearly to the level that they did,” McGraw said.

McGraw also said Williamson was strong as the backup center this season – the reason she won the team’s most improved player award.

Jan. 31, the Irish returned from a three-game road trip with three straight losses at Marquette, Connecticut and Pittsburgh. But in its darkest hour, Notre Dame turned their season around with a string of six straight conference wins.

The Irish rode the winning streak to a seventh seed in the Big East tournament. This finish, coupled with a win over California in the NCAA Tournament, showed Notre Dame’s tenacity this season after being picked to finish 11th in the Big East in the preseason polls.

“It was just a lot of chemistry and a lot of mental toughness,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “An attitude of we’ve got to prove everybody wrong.”

McGraw mentioned her senior starters – forward Crystal Erwin and guard Breona Gray – guided the team through the rocky season.

“Our captains and our seniors, because they really, they got mad when they found out they got picked to finish 11th and they sort of, really got determined,” McGraw said.

Although this winning streak propelled the Irish into the postseason, one of Notre Dame’s biggest wins happened Dec. 6 against No. 6 Purdue at the Joyce Center. The Irish overcame an 11-point deficit to upset the Boilermakers 67-58.

“The Purdue game, that was a huge win because it gave us a lot of confidence early in the season, and so after that, when we looked at playing Connecticut and Rutgers, it prepared us for North Carolina [in the NCAA Tournament],” McGraw said.

The win was part of a trend for the Irish, who played well against every ranked team they played this season, McGraw said.

“We played well as the underdog,” McGraw said. “We ran that role and I think when teams came in we just had that feeling that we had nothing to lose; we’ve played big games before.”

The Irish carried this underdog role into the NCAA Tournament when they faced off against North Carolina in the second round. After downing California in the first round 62-59 behind clutch play from juniors Tulyah Gaines and Charel Allen, the Irish hung with the Tar Heels for most of the game. Allen got the Irish a 41-33 second half lead, but strong shooting from North Carolina down the stretch overcame that deficit, en route to a 60-51 win.

Allen was a constant presence in the box score, averaging 17 points per game and 19.2 in conference matchups while being named to the first team all-Big East roster for the first time in her career. Yesterday, Allen accepted an invitation to the USA Basketball U-21 Team Trials in Colorado Springs.

“She hunted her shot a little bit more, she looked for her opportunities a little bit more, and she’s still a team player and the whole team was happy that she was scoring,” McGraw said. “It was really just the case that she was able to do a little bit more and that’s what we needed her to do.”

Notre Dame’s freshmen provided the final piece to the puzzle this season, allowing the Irish to succeed all season. Guards Ashley Barlow and Melissa Lechlitner and center Erica Williamson were strong forces off the bench all season.

“Ashley Barlow was coming of the bench and able to score and rebound and do a lot of things. Melissa Lechlitner – we expected those two to contribute, but not nearly to the level that they did,” McGraw said.

McGraw also mentioned Williamson’s strength as the backup center this season as she won the Most Improved Player award as voted on by her teammates.