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ND Women’s Basketball: Irish fight through adversity to advance to Sweet 16

Jay Fitzpatrick | Wednesday, May 14, 2008

After a three-year absence from the Sweet 16, Notre Dame returned to the NCAA regional final this season before falling to eventual national champion Tennessee 74-64.

The only thing is, the Irish almost didn’t make it there.

On Feb. 10 in a home game against Pittsburgh, freshman forward Devereaux Peters – who had been one of the biggest surprises for the Irish up to that point at both ends of the floor – landed awkwardly after grabbing a rebound and fell to the ground. Later tests would show she had torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and would miss the rest of the season.

“When Devereaux went down, that was kind of the big blow to us. So to make the Sweet 16 without her I thought was kind of a fantastic season,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.

Peters had been integral for the Irish defense, which operated almost exclusively in a zone during the second half of the season because she was the point of the Irish press. At that position, she was responsible for turnovers that led to easy transition buckets.

“When she went down, immediately what suffered was our press… Charel did a good job at the point, Ashley did some at the point of the press,” McGraw said. “It was good, but we didn’t have the depth. We weren’t able to move people around as much.”

While Peters’ production before her injury was a pleasant surprise (9.1 points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game and 2.0 blocks per game), McGraw said the surprise was more in how early this production came.

“I expected Devereaux to be a shot-blocker and a rebounder, and she definitely gave us that. She was leading the Big East in blocked shots, and I didn’t expect her to do quite that well,” McGraw said. “She scored a little bit more than I thought she would.”

Coming into this season, Peters was only one of the three Irish freshmen to surprise McGraw. Guard Brittany Mallory came into Notre Dame as McGraw’s 3-point specialist, but McGraw said the freshman became an important part of the team’s defense. Forward Becca Bruszewski had a slow start trying to find minutes early in the season but became an impact player off the bench by the time the NCAA Tournament came around, winning the team’s Most Improved Player award.

“When you saw her at the end of the year and you saw what she can do against teams in the NCAA Tournament, she had just a fantastic finish,” McGraw said.

The season started off well for the Irish, despite losing it’s third game of the season to then-No. 3 Maryland 75-59 in the Preseason WNIT. But after that game, the team ran off 10 straight wins, something McGraw said was a big boost to its confidence.

“Our non-conference schedule really set us up for postseason play because we beat all the teams we were supposed to beat. Not only did we win, but we won big in a lot of those games,” McGraw said.

That winning streak ended at the Joyce Center on Jan. 5 against top-ranked Tennessee. The loss was the start of a bad January for Notre Dame, when it would go only 5-4 – by far it’s worst month of the season. To their credit, the Irish did play much tougher competition during that run, including losses at home against then-No. 1 Connecticut and at No. 16 West Virginia.

“I think definitely the quality of our opponents was better. We expected to win a lot of those games, and when we didn’t win -and really against Tennessee and Connecticut we weren’t in those games as much as we wanted to be – so I think that was a little blow to our confidence,” McGraw said.

McGraw called her team’s 81-80 loss to DePaul at home on Jan. 22 “a low-point of the season,” and said she was not pleased with her team’s defense. This statement was much calmer than her immediate reaction to the loss, when she said in her post-game news conference her squad was “certainly the worst defensive team in the Big East.”

Following that game, McGraw almost completely abandoned the man-to-man defense in favor of the zone, something she said led to Notre Dame’s success later in the season.

“As it turned out, [switching to zone] was really important because I think we’re good at it. Our press was effective, we ran well. Going back to the foundation of our success helped us string some wins together and get our confidence back,” McGraw said.

One of Notre Dame’s goals coming into the season was the earn a first-round bye in the Big East tournament, and after its rough January, it needed a strong February to accomplish that goal – and that’s exactly what it got.

The Irish only lost once in February, 57-51 on Feb. 19 at No. 5 Rutgers, and clinched the bye before the season ended. Notre Dame also exacted some revenge on the Blue Demons, winning 66-64 in Chicago on Feb. 24.

The Irish lost any momentum they had garnered with back-to-back losses against St. John’s in the season finale and Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament.

“It was a big emotional letdown for us because we thought we were going to do well in the tournament, and we had really high hopes for ourselves,” McGraw said.

McGraw gave her team what she thought was some much-needed rest in order to prepare for its first-round matchup with Southern Methodist in the NCAA Tournament.

After topping the Mustangs 75-62, the Irish moved on to face No. 4 seed Oklahoma. After battling the Sooners through the first 40 minutes to a 65-65 tie, Irish guard Charel Allen took over in overtime, propelling her team to a 79-75 win into the Sweet 16.

“That [win] was huge for our whole program,” McGraw said. “We’d been there six out of eight years and then we hit a dry spell and we hadn’t been there for three or four years. It was huge for us to get our program back to where our program expects us to be a Sweet 16 team every year.”