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Myers: Irish get better at winning (Mar. 27)

Laura Myers | Sunday, March 27, 2011

Before Notre Dame’s opening round game against Utah, I told The Observer’s photographer to make sure to get some shots of the walk-ons when they would inevitably get the call towards the end of the game.

I figured the Irish had this one locked up, that they’d defeat Utah in the same way Tennessee had taken care of Stetson (99-34) and Duke had defeated Tennessee-Martin (90-45).  That’s what a contender does, was my thought, and the picture would go with just such a commentary.

Of course, that’s not what happened.

Notre Dame won by 13 after a hard-fought, painful-to-watch game. At halftime, when the Irish were up just three points, I told the photographer to make sure to get pictures of all the starters still in at the end of the game.

But I didn’t use those shots, either.

Before I could start getting into what a team with a real chance does or doesn’t do in the NCAA tournament, Tennessee barely eked out a second-round win against Marquette, and No. 2-seed Duke was just trying to survive against No. 10 Marist. All four second-round games leading up to Notre Dame’s match with Temple were close and surprising.

Then the Irish stepped up and beat Temple, again by 13 points, in a game that wasn’t exactly pretty, but that they controlled for all but about four minutes.

I didn’t know what to say.

Now, after Notre Dame’s 25-point defeat of Oklahoma, in which the walk-ons made an appearance, I do.

What a team with a real chance does in the NCAA tournament is win. That’s it.

And with each game, Notre Dame has gotten better at doing just that.

Heading into the program’s first Elite Eight game since the 2001 championship, Notre Dame has all the pieces to keep it up. The question is how much longer those pieces can stay together.

Senior guard Brittany Mallory, known lately for her all-out fight on defense, tied a Notre Dame NCAA tournament record Saturday with six 3-pointers. With most teams focused on Notre Dame’s inside game, Mallory hitting 3’s could be a huge boost for the Irish — if she keeps shooting them.

Speaking of that inside game, senior forward Devereaux Peters did what she does best Saturday, which was to be simply devastating. Her stat line read 17 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocks. It was her second straight double-double. Her biggest challenge Monday is not to get into foul trouble against a big Tennessee team. The more minutes she’s on the floor, the better chance the Irish have.

It’s hard to imagine junior guard Natalie Novosel scoring in single digits, sophomore point guard Skylar Diggins not consistently finding the open woman or freshman forward Natalie Achonwa not fighting for every rebound.

Then there’s senior forward Becca Bruszewski, the team’s motivational leader and the only player graduating for the Irish. Which is why it was no surprise she insisted on playing yesterday after a knee injury that caused her to spend much of the first half in the locker room.

Bruszewski would lead the team in intensity, toughness and all-around game-facedness, if those categories were statistics (or words). If we’re sticking with the overused puzzle metaphor, she’s the glue you put on all the other pieces so you can frame your accomplishment and put it on the wall. Without it you can still see the whole image, but it’s certainly not going to last.

In the Big East tournament, Bruszewski was listed as questionable for the final game against Connecticut because of a rib injury in the semifinals. She started that game.

Now, it will be a game-time decision if she plays Monday against Tennessee.

Odds are at least one person already has her mind made up.

Notre Dame has gotten better with every game of this tournament, and, if everything stays together, should expect more of the same Monday.

Based on a linear progression, they Irish will beat Tennessee by 25, and then win the semifinal and championship by 37 points each. Just simple math.

But they don’t need to reach a magic number of points. It doesn’t matter whether the last inbound is from Brittany Mallory to Skylar Diggins or from Mary Forr to Veronica Badway.  

Either way, the picture just needs to show the win.