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A ‘sense of urgency’

Chris Masoud | Friday, March 19, 2010

Despite the buzz traditionally associated with March Madness, Notre Dame’s NCAA Tournament run last year could not have been more anticlimactic. There was no confetti pouring from the ceiling, no unruly fans rushing the home court — just a first-round defeat at the hands of No. 10-seed Minnesota in front of a stunned home crowd.

While that scene never made the Irish postseason highlight film, the defeat has become ingrained in the memory of those on the court.

“I don’t think it’s ever been fully behind us,” senior guard Lindsay Schrader said. “It’s always been in the back of our minds because that’s where our motivation came from, that’s why we worked so hard this summer because of that and how we felt. We never want to feel like that again.”

Yet with no seniors on the 2009 team, no tears of disappointment were shed. Watching the Sweet 16 bid be decided on their home court could have been a demoralizing experience, but the desire to make a return was fueled that day.

“If I was a senior last year I would have been very, very disappointed with the way we went out,” Schrader said. “And good thing we didn’t have any seniors because I would have felt bad for them. This year, I just want to end my career on a win.”

To do that the Irish will have to make it to San Antonio, the site of this year’s Final Four, as the No. 2 seed in the Kansas City Region. But unlike the team from a year ago, this year’s squad features five seniors not willing to finish their collegiate careers just yet.

“Last year we lacked that sense of urgency in terms of ‘This is our last game,’ because we had no one graduating,” senior forward Erica Williamson said. “With five people who are saying ‘This is my last chance to wear a Notre Dame uniform,’ we’re going to go out and play to the best of our ability.”

They are a unit of five seniors. Or maybe three guards, a forward, and a hybrid that can play any position on the floor. Or maybe two fierce competitors, two unselfish distributors, and a motivator that brings out the team’s best. Whatever classifications are thrown on this year’s graduating class, one unifying thread can be used to describe them all.

“First and foremost, I think all of us bring leadership,” senior guard Ashley Barlow said. “We’ve been here four years, some of us even five. We just get along with each other, we know how to work well with each other.”

Barlow’s leadership was put to the test in one of the toughest stretches of the season, a two-game road trip beginning with a matchup against Syracuse in the hostile Carrier Dome. Down by two with less than a minute to play, Barlow hit the game-winning 3 after missing her previous four attempts.

“She’s got such a great personality, and obviously everyone sees what she does on the court,” senior guard Melissa Lechlitner said. “She brings so much to us offensively, grabbing that huge rebound or making that clutch shot. Just the epitome of what a senior should do.”

Each brings a unique set of skills to the floor that gives Irish coach Muffet McGraw an arsenal of plays and styles to keep the opposition on its heels. Perhaps just as important, practicing and playing in the Big East together for four years has given them the opportunity to feed off each other’s talent.

But their greatest asset to the team may be the seniors’ ability to develop the freshmen and sophomores into legitimate competitors on both ends of the court.

Guard Skylar Diggins has turned one of the best freshman campaigns in program history, and it’s not over. McGraw credits Diggins’ rapid development into an All-Big East Second Team honoree to the experience and maturity of her veterans.

“I think that’s so important because she’s learning shots from the upperclassmen,” McGraw said. “They’re helping her, they let her be creative and play her game, and still they communicate well with her. She just fits in so well with everything and everyone.”

Lechlitner believes the ability of the seniors to maintain their composure and poise in the midst of a difficult situation has been especially helpful to their teammates, who look to follow in their example.

“We’re just a steady force,” Lechlitner said. “When adversity’s thrown or a game might be getting tight or we’re down a little bit, I think the steady hand that we offer for them allows them to play within themselves and excel from that point.”

Every season has its ups and down and every team must deal with the possibility of injury. When Schrader sprained her ankle in the first half of a victory over DePaul, that possibility became a reality.

Notre Dame became a noticeably different team on both ends of the floor without the fifth-year senior at the helm. The Irish dropped consecutive road games to No. 18 St. John’s and No. 13 Georgetown, averaging 10 points fewer on offense while giving up 14 more points than the season average.

“I felt so helpless,” Schrader said. “I’m not the sitting on the sidelines kind of person, I have to be doing something. When I saw my teammates out there needing help and I couldn’t do anything, I felt so bad, sick to my stomach because I felt so helpless.”

Although tempted to blame herself for the only loss of the season, Schrader said she had to remind herself to take a positive approach to the setback, the same approach she took when she tore her ACL her sophomore season. Grateful for the opportunity to play in the tournament, Schrader now looks forward to a second chance at defending the home floor.

“It wasn’t my fault that I got hurt,” Schrader said. “I just had to keep telling myself that any given night anybody can go down. You just have to put the best of your abilities to the time that you have it and take nothing for granted.”

But Schrader is just one link in McGraw’s four-guard offense. A natural point guard and the unanimous leader on offense, Lechlitner’s ball-handling skills are a complement to her drive and outstanding work ethic.

“She’s the leader of this team,” Williamson said. “She’s the heart and soul. When she’s on the court you can tell that everything else has calmed down. When she’s playing you can tell that we play so much better because she’s there.”

A starter for the majority of her career, Williamson has seen a steady reduction in playing time this season due to the emergence of junior forwards Becca Bruszewski and Devereaux Peters into playmakers in the post. Despite the obvious temptation to throw in the towel, Williamson has taken the high road.

“She’s really stepped up and is always doing everything she can for the team,” Lechlitner said. “She’s probably one of the most unselfish players on this team and will put her body on the line and do absolutely everything she needs to do to help us be successful.”

Walk-ons seldom get playing time at the collegiate level. Senior guard Alena Christiansen is no exception, yet she has managed to positively impact her team in a rarely appreciated position.

“She’s found a great role for herself,” McGraw said. “She’s the first one off the bench cheering, giving everyone a pat on the back and encouragement if they’re not playing well.”

The seniors will leave quite a legacy on the women’s basketball program, one that includes four tournament appearances and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2008. However, they still have some unfinished business.

“I just want to make it to San Antonio, that’s my bread and butter right now,” Schrader said. “If I can do that, I would say I had a very successful year hands down. Actually that’s all the girls. Everybody wants to go to San Antonio.”