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ND Women’s Basketball

Zuba: Early losses shaped young ND team

| Thursday, March 19, 2015

No. 2 Notre Dame stumbled at just the right times this season.

The Irish (31-2, 15-1 ACC) lost to No. 1 Connecticut, 76-58, on Dec. 6 at home. Then they lost to unranked Miami, 78-63, on Jan. 8 on the road.

The only two blemishes on a near-perfect record.

WomenBballGraphicFinalErin Rice | The Observer

Last season, the Irish were perfect in the regular season. They were perfect all the way up to the championship game, which they lost, 79-58, to Connecticut (32-1, 18-0 AAC this year).

This season, however, those first losses are already out of the way. They came early enough in the season that Notre Dame could learn from them, and it seems as though the Irish have.

Before the pair of losses, Notre Dame looked good, but the Irish weren’t cruising. They had growing pains, turnovers and needed to play more aggressively.

After the loss to Miami, Notre Dame walloped Boston College at Purcell Pavilion, 104-58, and proceeded to plow through the rest of its schedule.

Of course, the learning process continues. None of the wins were perfect.

The Irish had some narrower victories along the way. They beat North Carolina State by just seven points on March 1 and topped No. 16 Duke by six on March 7 in the ACC tournament.

Back on Jan. 22, the Irish beat Georgia Tech, 89-76, after surrendering a larger lead late in the game. Irish head coach Muffet McGraw kept pushing her team, asserting Notre Dame could do better.

“It is about how you play and the attitude that you have, the toughness that you show, and we did not show any toughness today,” McGraw said after that game. “We had no pride in our defense whatsoever. I was extremely disappointed with the defensive effort, the rebounding effort.”

The Irish have a coach willing to push them, whether they lose by 30 or win by 30. That’s a major element of their success every season. McGraw isn’t an easily satisfied coach, and that makes her teams unwilling to settle.

It’s part of the reason why, despite the disappointing moments, Notre Dame hasn’t been derailed. The Irish have stayed on track since Jan. 8.

As McGraw pointed out Monday during the NCAA tournament selection show, the Irish “still haven’t painted [their] masterpiece.”

That fact should get Notre Dame fans excited. The Irish have further to go to reach their peak, and they’re on their ascent there, just as the NCAA tournament gets underway. With losses behind them, the Irish can look up.

Knowing what a loss feels like can give a team confidence and poise. A loss can knock the fear of losing out of a team and replace it with a hunger to win. Losing can show a team what it’s been missing and what it takes to win, to reach the next level.

The Irish seem to have the confidence that comes with knowing you lost but that it made you better.

Last season, the Irish had tough regular season games, but they weren’t tested by a loss. They didn’t have to bounce back in that way.

This season, Notre Dame experienced the test of a loss early, and that’s a good thing, particularly with a number of promising underclassmen on the roster. The stakes are high at a women’s basketball powerhouse like Notre Dame, so every loss demands improvement.

When the tournament rolls around, it’s too late to lose and learn those lessons. A loss just ends your season.

The Irish know this all too well. Last year, Notre Dame lost Natalie Achonwa in the Elite Eight and stumbled at just the wrong moment.

This year, the Irish are poised to peak at just the right time.

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

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