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ND Women’s Basketball: Irish enjoy magical run to championship game

Andrew Owens | Friday, May 20, 2011

The 2010-11 season was expected to be a transition year for the Irish — the program graduated three of its top five scorers in 2010, and was depending on a few inexperienced players to emerge in more prominent roles.

After a regular season in which they were consistently ranked in the top-10 followed by an appearance in the Big East tournament championship, the Irish went on a run to the NCAA championship game with signature victories over Tennessee and Connecticut on the way.

Not bad for a transition year.

“It was an amazing run,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “The team really exceeded expectations of anyone. We were ranked No. 9 or No. 10 before the Final Four run. The team had an incredible drive to succeed.”

The Final Four victory over Connecticut, which advanced Notre Dame (31-8, 13-3 Big East) to its second ever national championship appearance was a defining moment for the team’s campaign. The 72-63 victory eliminated the Huskies and sent the Irish to their first national championship berth in 10 years.

“I think it was the feeling of ‘finally we did it’ after beating Connecticut,” McGraw said. “After losing to [Connecticut] three times, [the players] went in believing they could win, just like they did in the Tennessee game.”

The Irish had advanced to the Final Four with a 73-59 win over Tennessee March 28. The victory was especially important for the team, as the program was 0-20 all-time against the Volunteers and their legendary coach, Pat Summitt. The performance transformed a team that was previously regarded as very talented, but not elite, and propelled it into the upper echelon.

Irish sophomore guard Skylar Diggins sparked Notre Dame throughout the tournament. She became the team’s primary point guard this season after an impressive freshman year. The South Bend native scored 24 points in the win over Tennessee, a season-high 28 in the winning effort against Connecticut and concluded her tournament run with 23 in the title game loss to Texas A&M.

“She played big on the big stage,” McGraw said. “She really did great and handled herself with poise, had tremendous will to win — she was not going to lose. She pushed herself, scored a lot of points, made good decisions and led us a long way.”

The nation took notice of Diggins’ efforts, as the sophomore stole the spotlight from Connecticut’s Maya Moore and became a household name. She was honored as a member of the all-tournament team after the championship game and will be on everyone’s short list for national player of the year when the season begins in the fall.

“In a way I’m just living the dream,” Diggins said during the tournament run.

Notre Dame succeeded in the tournament against consecutive No. 1 seeds, largely due to the daunting regular season schedule it encountered. The Irish lost three close non-conference games in the regular season to strong opponents — an 86-83 loss in two overtimes to UCLA Nov. 18, an 81-76 loss to No. 9 Kentucky Nov. 21 and a 76-65 loss to No. 2 Baylor Dec. 1 that was more competitive than the score indicates.

In Big East regular season play, the Irish only lost three times — twice to two-time defending national champion Connecticut and once in the regular season finale to No. 12 DePaul, 70-69.

Not only did the Irish redeem themselves against Connecticut, but they also avenged the DePaul loss by beating the Blue Demons in the Big East tournament semifinals, 71-67 March 7. With both teams consistently among the best in the Big East and their recent matchups being so competitive, Diggins thought the win meant even more to the squad because of the budding rivalry.

“Their being close to us and being such a good team — we know when we play them it’s going to be competitive,” she said. “We’ve got players from [Chicago] … so it’s just a competitive game and everyone’s going to be up for that game.”

The special run by the Irish ended in the championship game April 5 at the hands of Texas A&M, 76-70. Aggies forward Danielle Adams proved to be too much for the Irish to handle, scoring 30 points and recording nine rebounds.

“We did not find an answer for her,” McGraw said. “She’s just a great player. She’s got a big body, we couldn’t get around her.”

Adams’ physical presence drew several fouls throughout the contest, leading to freshman forward Natalie Achonwa’s departure with five fouls. Senior forward Devereaux Peters missed crucial minutes down the stretch because she was in foul trouble as well.

Aggies guard Tyra White sank a 3-pointer with two seconds left on the shot clock and 1:07 left in the game to put Texas A&M up by five.

“That was a knife right in my heart. That was the game,” McGraw said after the game. “It was an unbelievable shot.”

Senior forward Becca Bruszewski will be the squad’s only departure heading into next season. She served as the team’s emotional leader and captain and will be difficult to replace.

“[The team] always continued to fight and had some great leadership because of Becca,” McGraw said. “Everyone rose to the occasion. It was a fun season and a great group.”

Achonwa will replace Bruszewski, having emerged during her freshman year as a low-post presence and important contributor, especially down the stretch.

“I thought she had a great tournament,” McGraw said of her freshman forward at the Big East tournament. “I thought she could’ve been on the all-tournament team because she just did so many great things for us off the bench. You could see she wasn’t intimidated. Overall I was really pleased with the way she played.”

Peters’ durability was in question at the start of the season because of past difficulties with injuries. The senior, who will return next year as she has one year of eligibility remaining, responded by playing in every game this season and anchoring the stout Irish defense. She was honored with Big East defensive player of the year award at the conference tournament in March. One of her best games came in the national championship appearance, when she scored 21 points and recorded 11 rebounds in the loss.

The berth in the national championship game came on the 10-year anniversary of the program’s only championship win and three months prior to McGraw’s induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

With most of the team remaining intact, the addition of a strong incoming freshman class and the possible return of freshman guard Kayla McBride, who missed most of the season due to personal reasons but is expected to rejoin the squad, Notre Dame is poised to make yet another tournament run in 2012.

“The last loss will motivate us through the summer — we will have a renewed energy and be more determined,” McGraw said. “Our goal will be to win the national championship in 2012.”