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Owens: Irish will reload in 2011-2012

Andrew Owens | Wednesday, April 6, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS — When the final seconds ticked off the clock in Notre Dame’s 76-70 loss in the championship game, green, blue and yellow confetti streamed down from the rafters in a moment of celebration for Texas A&M — the first championship in school history.

But it was the Irish who were pursuing destiny — they were supposed to win, right? After all, it was the 10-year anniversary of the program’s only title, the Final Four was held in Indiana, and Notre Dame’s sensational point guard eerily resembled her mentor and current assistant coach in a dynamic postseason run. It only seemed right that Notre Dame would send its iconic coach into the Hall of Fame this summer fresh off a national championship. They even exorcised demons of the past in the three games leading up to the championship game. But, in the end, it was not the perfect storybook ending that the Irish were looking for. Even the confetti refused to believe Notre Dame had lost.

Once the dust — and confetti — settles, the Irish will look back on this magical run and realize what an achievement it was. They defeated Oklahoma, a team that had haunted them in recent tournaments, knocked off No. 1-seeded Tennessee, a program they had never beaten (0-20 coming into the game), and saw it all culminate by handing Connecticut, the top overall seed, only its second loss in 115 games.

This all transpired in what was supposed to be a transition year. After losing guards Ashley Barlow, Melissa Lechlitner and Lindsay Schrader to graduation, the team lost a combined 30.6 points per game of offensive production. Skylar Diggins was asked to move to the point guard position after bursting onto the scene in a successful freshman year. Senior forward Devereaux Peters was a large question mark heading into the season with knee problems. The bench situation was even more difficult to get a grasp on heading into the season. But these questions were all answered as the season progressed.

 

Diggins embraced her new role and responsibilities and blossomed into one of college basketball’s most dynamic players and interesting personalities. She spearheaded the deep tournament run and was named a member of the All-Tournament team and the most valuable player of the Dayton Regional.

“She really stepped up her game, I thought, in the NCAA tournament, particularly as the games went on,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said after the loss.

It was not just Diggins’ coach who took notice — the whole nation did, as the sophomore became a Twitter phenomenon in the later stages of the tournament.

Peters’ knee turned out to be a non-factor, as she played in every game this season, was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and, along with Diggins, was a member of the All-Tournament team. She averaged 12.9 points and 7.9 rebounds as the anchor of the Notre Dame frontcourt.

The bench was also an important factor in the tournament run. Even without freshman guard Kayla McBride, who left the team for personal reasons in January, the Irish bench provided key minutes throughout the season. Freshman forward Natalie Achonwa transformed into a key contributor and especially turned her game up a notch once the Big East tournament started. Junior guard Fraderica Miller and sophomore guard Kalia Turner gave valuable minutes and played strong defense against some of the nation’s top guards.

The scary thing is that this team should be even better next year. Forward Becca Bruszewski graduates, but she is the only player not returning for the 2011-12 season. McBride is expected to be back with the team in the fall. Diggins will be near the top of everyone’s preseason awards lists, and another year of experience will only strengthen her leadership and determination to earn the program another national championship.

While Bruszewski’s leadership will be greatly missed, Achonwa is ready to step in and match her production on the court. If Peters can stay healthy, the Irish will have one of the top frontcourt duos in the Big East.

The maturation of senior guard Brittany Mallory and junior guard Natalie Novosel was very apparent, and they will continue to grow in McGraw’s system.

Next April, it should not surprise anyone if the Irish are cutting down the nets in Denver. Only this time, the confetti will match the colors of the championship team.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu