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Finished in Fresno

Joe Hettler | Tuesday, March 22, 2005

FRESNO, Calif. – Notre Dame’s season began its slow death as the first half buzzer sounded with the Irish up five in their second round NCAA tournament game against Arizona State on Monday.

That’s when the Sun Devils Betsy Boardman drained a 3-pointer, cutting Notre Dame’s 27-14 advantage to 28-23. Arizona State had the momentum and didn’t look back.

The Irish couldn’t find any traction after that shot, struggling against a Sun Devil squad that suddenly grabbed every rebound, drained every key basket and controlled every loose ball. After trailing by 13 points, Arizona State rolled off an unfathomable 56-34 run to end the game, leaving Notre Dame frustrated and exhausted in a 70-61 final defeat.

“We were cut and bleeding,” Notre Dame’s Jacqueline Batteast said. “They smelled blood, and they didn’t let up.”

Just like that, a season that had so much promise came to a crashing and abrupt end in the middle of California long before anyone expected. Notre Dame tallied the third most regular season victories in school history this season with 26, but this team will be remembered more for its early exit in the Big Dance than for any of those successes.

After Arizona State began the game on a 7-0 run, Notre Dame promptly responded with a 27-7 spurt that placed the Sun Devils squarely on the ropes with just 3:47 left in the half.

The Irish needed one more punch for the knockout.

They never got it.

As the second half played out, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw knew the ship was quickly sinking. During one timeout early in the half, she screamed at her players to play more as a team. It was more of a plea than a demand.

The Irish simply couldn’t wrestle back the momentum Arizona State built up during the end of the first half and beginning of the second. All-Big East freshman Charel Allen, Notre Dame’s No. 1 option off the bench, went down with a torn ACL at the 14:23 mark of the second half and the Irish trailing 35-32.

With 10:37 left, Batteast missed a lay-up and Arizona State’s Kristen Kovesdy drained a jumper on the other end to put the Sun Devils up nine. After cutting the lead down to just five at the 6:13 mark, the Sun Devils Emily Westerberg sank an off-balance shot in the lane, drew the foul and made the free throw, putting her team back up by eight at 52-44.

Finally, Arizona State point guard Kylan Loney put the final nail in the coffin ending Notre Dame’s season with a 3-pointer, giving the Sun Devils a 63-54 lead with just 1:10 remaining.

As the reality set in, the faces of the Irish coaches and players told the whole story. A barely audible McGraw spoke hurriedly during the post-game press conference, still in shock from what she had just witnessed. Batteast fought back tears as she shook hands with Arizona State players, and Tuylah Gaines smacked her hands together in frustration moments after the final buzzer sounded.

All the promise, all the opportunities, all the potential was whisked away from Notre Dame in just two short hours at the Save Mart Arena in Fresno. No doubt, Batteast will take this loss hardest. The South Bend native had a magical career under the golden dome.

She ends it as the program’s fourth all-time leading scorer and, perhaps more importantly, the face of the women’s team. Batteast led Notre Dame to two Sweet 16s and a 27-6 record during her senior season. But it won’t be enough in her eyes. She said more than once that this team would accept nothing less than passing through the Sweet 16 into the Elite Eight. Not reaching the third round will be the toughest pill she’s had to swallow during her four years at Notre Dame.

Last season, after a tough defeat to No. 1 seed Penn State, Notre Dame seemed somewhat satisfied with reaching the Sweet 16 and battling the Nittany Lions for 40 minutes.

But this season is different. This season the Irish eyed big things from the get-go, especially after winning the Preseason National Invitation Tournament with wins over Duke and Ohio State.

This season, the Irish had seven wins against top-25 opponents and looked downright scary in many of those victories. This season the Irish knew they had the personnel, the ability and the determination to legitimately fight for a spot in Indianapolis and the Final Four.

But after last night, this season is in the past. Notre Dame sprinted past California Santa Barbara in the first round only to be tripped up by Arizona State two nights later. They let a 27-14 lead slip away, and – in the process – saw a season of hope and promise slip away with it.

Notre Dame’s players shouldn’t allow this loss to ruin an otherwise wonderful five months of basketball. The Irish accomplished some great feats en route to their 27 wins.

But it’s doubtful any of the players or coaches on this team will be so optimistic. Who can blame them? Notre Dame had a chance to do some remarkable things in March.

Instead, they choked when the stakes were greatest. Instead, they faltered in the face of tough opposition. Instead, they simply didn’t do enough.

For most Irish players, they have an entire off-season to think about what could have been. For others, like seniors Teresa Borton and Batteast, they have the rest of their lives to ponder how far this team could have gone.

When the final buzzer sounded a few minutes after 11 p.m. EST Monday night and Arizona State’s players celebrated a Sweet 16 berth at mid-court, Notre Dame’s season officially perished. With it died the dreams of the players and coaches who believed this Irish team had the chance to travel deep into the NCAA Tournament.

Now, they’re simply left unfulfilled.

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

Contact Joe Hettler at [email protected]