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Free throws play key role in Irish victory

Bill Brink | Monday, January 19, 2009

Erica Solomon ensured that free throws would decide the game. The Irish hit theirs. The Red Storm couldn’t.

The freshman forward helped Notre Dame hang on to win 70-67 over St. John’s at the Joyce Center Saturday. The Irish (15-2, 4-1 Big East) led by as many as 11 in the second half, but St. John’s (13-4, 1-3) closed the gap and the teams traded leads down the stretch.

Solomon made a layup with 1:25 left to give Notre Dame a 67-66 lead, then grabbed an offensive rebound on her own missed shot and drew a foul a minute later.

“I saw a lot of their shirts underneath the basket and all of a sudden [Solomon] came away with the ball, I don’t know how she got it,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “That was an incredible rebound.”

Solomon, who had nine points and eight rebounds, made one of her two free throws, and Notre Dame led by two. She said she focused on rebounding during a physical game under the basket.

“I just had to find my man and box her out,” she said. “I just had to get the rebounds, I just had to fight.”

With 14 seconds left, freshman Frederica Miller fouled Red Storm guard Sky Lindsay. With the chance to tie the game, Lindsay only made one of two foul shots.

Two seconds later, St. John’s guard Monique McLean fouled guard Ashley Barlow, who made both her foul shots and gave the Irish a three-point lead.

The Red Storm tried to get long-range sharpshooter Kelly McManmon open in the corner for a game-tying three, but guard Lindsay Schrader blocked the shot, and Barlow came down with the rebound as time expired.

St. John’s coach Kim Barnes Arico scoffed when asked if the block, which took place right in front of her, was clean, but said she would wait to watch the film before passing judgment.

Guard Melissa Lechlitner finished with 15 points and Lindsay Schrader had 13 points and five assists. Barlow finished with 13 points and hit 3-of-6 3-pointers, and forward Becca Bruszewski had 13 points and made 4-of-5 foul shots.

Notre Dame contained McLean, the Red Storm’s leading scorer, in the first half, holding her to three points on 1-of-8 shooting. In the second half, however, she found her stroke and space to use it. She finished with 17 points and four 3-pointers.

“We left her alone,” McGraw said. “We forgot about her. She managed to get free. A couple times it was rotation, a couple times it was off the press. She’s a very good player. Having her go 6-for-18, I think we did a very good job on her.”

That press may have allowed McLean open looks, but it also created crucial stops and turnovers. It often trapped St. John’s in its own zone and left the offense with about half the shot clock remaining, and at one point caused a shot clock violation.

“We just wanted something to slow them down, so we only had to play 10 or 15 seconds of defense,” McGraw said. “When we came back to the press at the end of the game, we got a couple steals that were critical.”

Notre Dame led 34-27 at the half and a layup from center Erica Williamson extended the lead to 11 in the opening minutes of the second half. But two three-point plays, one from McLean and one from forward Da’Shena Stevens, helped St. John’s pull within three.

The Irish widened the gap to eight with Lechlitner’s 3-pointer, but that would be Notre Dame’s last basket for more than five minutes. McLean hit two threes during a 12-0 run that gave St. John’s a 52-48 lead with 10:56 remaining.

The Red Storm held the lead until 6:12 left in the game, when Bruszewski converted a 3-point play to tie the game at 58. Four foul shots by Stevens gave St. John’s a one-point lead, but then Solomon’s layup put the Irish ahead for good.

“I think that shows fight in our team, coming back,” Lechlitner said. “It starts on defense for us.”

McGraw said her older players, such as Lechlitner and Barlow, have the “killer instinct” needed to win close games. Lechlitner said the younger players possess it, but it hasn’t shone through yet.

“You’re going to see it down the road,” she said. “Because they all have it.”