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Record-breaking wins, devastating losses mark season

Laura Myers | Thursday, March 31, 2011

During the first game of Notre Dame’s season, the 2001 championship team presented the current squad with an autographed basketball and told the team, “Now it’s your turn.”

This year’s captains, seniors Becca Bruszewski and Brittany Mallory, placed the ball in the team’s locker room, where it has stayed ever since.

At the time, it just seemed like a nice thing to say, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.

But after an up-and-down season, the Irish are in the Final Four since the first time since that 2001 trip.

“It almost seems like fate,” McGraw said.

A look at the season that got them there:

The first half: Nov. 12, 2010 – Jan. 5, 2011

Notre Dame began play with a 99-48 win over New Hampshire, and ended the first half of its season with a 97-21 win over Southeast Missouri State in which it broke six school records.

In between, the team compiled a 13-3 record that included 11 games of 80+ points, and five wins by a margin of more than 50.

It also included three losses to ranked teams, starting with an 86-83 loss in double overtime to No. 15 UCLA and an 81-76 loss to No. 9 Kentucky three days later.

“After we lost to Kentucky, we were 2-2 on the season and I told the team that’s how the ’97 Final Four started out,” McGraw said. “And we didn’t lose to ranked teams [in 1997]. But we started out 2-2 and ended up 31-7. “

Four games later, Notre Dame traveled to Texas to play No. 1 Baylor and lost 76-65.

“We talked about how close we were to the No. 1 team on their home court,” McGraw said. “We tried to stay positive.”

The Irish then won seven straight games leading into conference play and won their first conference game against Marquette.

Notre Dame started the season uncertain about this year’s team after losing starting guards Lindsay Schrader, Melissa Lechlitner and Ashley Barlow, all of who had graduated with numerous conference and national honors. After finishing the 2009-10 season ranked No. 7, the Irish were No. 12 in the AP preseason poll.

Sophomore guard Skylar Diggins took over the point guard position previously held by Lechlitner, and senior guard Brittany Mallory, senior forward Devereaux Peters and junior guard Natalie Novosel became regular starters for the first time.

“We had our growing pains early, which is good for us,” Diggins said. “We were a young team. A lot of players didn’t start last year. A lot of people just coming in and getting in-game experience really helped them out. “

At the start of Big East play, the Irish were ranked No. 13. But a turning point came in early January, when McGraw said she realized her team could truly contend.

Connecticut: Jan. 8

At home against No. 2 Connecticut, the Irish led much of the game and lost by a heartbreaking three points in the final 30 seconds of play.

“We saw how close we were playing with the number one team in the country,” she said. “We saw that a little bit at Baylor. … There were flashes of it early. But the Connecticut game was the biggest in terms of confidence boosting.”

In that game, Peters scored 17 points and had 11 rebounds, one of her 10 double-doubles this season. Diggins and Novosel scored 16 each, and the teams went into halftime tied at 41.

But Diggins missed a jumper at the end of the game, and Huskies guard Kelly Faris put Connecticut ahead.

Notre Dame wouldn’t lose again for over a month.

Conference play: Jan. 12 – Feb. 28

Notre Dame’s defense and post play were keys to a 14-2 conference record that included wins over four ranked teams (No. 16 Georgetown, No. 23 St. John’s, No. 25 Syracuse and No. 19 West Virginia) and the program’s second-largest conference win ever, 89-38 over Seton Hall on Feb. 8.

On Jan 23, the Irish took another personnel hit when standout freshman guard Kayla McBride announced she would be leaving the team for personal reasons. At that point, McBride was averaging 8.7 points in 24 minutes per game.

In a punishing stretch at the end of the season, Notre Dame faced No. 2 Connecticut, No. 19 West Virginia and No. 12 DePaul on the road in the space of 10 days.

It fell to Connecticut 78-57 on Feb. 19, its first loss since the Huskies won Jan. 8. The team then defeated West Virginia 72-60 on Jan. 22, but suffered yet another last-second loss, 70-69, to DePaul.

Heading into the Big East tournament, the Irish had lost six games. All were to teams ranked in the top 15, and five were by a single-digit margin. At this point, Notre Dame was ranked No. 7.

“We’ve been up and down, down a lot within the team. The reason is injuries and losing two people, but we knew we had to come together,” Mallory said. “We knew it was going to happen. At some point, we knew we were going to play our best basketball.”

The Big East tournament: March 6 – March 8

The loss to DePaul gave Notre Dame the No. 3 seed in the Big East tournament, held in Hartford, Conn.

The Irish took care of Louisville 63-53 in the quarterfinals before a rematch with DePaul just a week after their first game. This time, it was Notre Dame pulling off the last-minute victory, defeating the Blue Demons 71-67 on the strength of Diggins’ 19 points.

The win sent Notre Dame to the Big East tournament championship for the first time in program history and to a match against Connecticut for the third time this season.

On a court that was anything but neutral, the Irish were down just one, 32-31, at halftime before ultimately falling 73-64.

In their first season as regular starters, Novosel was named the Big East’s most improved player and Peters the Big East defensive player of the year.

Despite the loss, the tournament gave Notre Dame momentum that it took to the NCAA tournament, and still hasn’t ceded.

“It’s fun to see the growth and maturity since the beginning of the season,” McGraw said.

The Final Four, April 3-5

The Irish will bring the autographed basketball with them to Indianapolis for Notre Dame’s first final four appearance since that run, said assistant coach Niele Ivey, who played point guard for the 2001 national championship team.

Ivey sided with Muffet, saying this season was beginning to look like “destiny.”

But after everything it has endured, Diggins said the team has a lot more than fortune on its side.

“As you can see this team is playing with a lot of energy and tenacity and relentlessness,” Diggins said. “We all come out here with a lot of excitement knowing we have a chance to make history again and be like them.”