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Women’s Basketball: Loss to UConn knocks the wind out of struggling Irish

Ken Fowler | Monday, February 20, 2006

With 5:30 left in the game Sunday and Notre Dame down 62-52, Megan Duffy drove to the lane. She dribbled, elevated and then drew contact.

But no foul was called, the ball rattled out of the cylinder and Duffy hit the ground hard.

“I got hit in the stomach and got the wind knocked out of me,” Duffy said.

It was that kind of a night for the Irish.

Connecticut’s Ann Strother was the one knocking the wind out of the Irish most of the game. The senior entered the contest averaging 14.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. She lived up to her reputation as a cool shooter when the heat is turned on, hitting three crucial three-pointers in the second half, including one on the ensuing possession after Duffy went down.

“Ann’s never been afraid to take shots,” Connecticut head coach Geno Auriema said after the game. “Notre Dame is a good team playing at home, and those games usually end up being decided by some plays that happen during key times during the game. What Ann does a lot for us is, she’ll make shots at those key junctures of the game that end up turning the game.”

That shot with 5:20 left was exactly one of those.

The Irish played Connecticut close for the first 32 minutes, but the Huskies managed to break away with an 18-4 run in a six-minute time span. After Notre Dame cut the lead to 52-48, Strother made two free throws, a 3-pointer from the left side and then her coup de grace to put the game out of reach.

With Duffy struggling to get back to her feet at the other end of the court after Strother’s shot, Irish coach Muffet McGraw called a 30-second timeout. It was a futile act of desperation.

“They got a couple of threes, got a couple offensive rebounds, made a steal off the press,” McGraw said. “And at that point, we kind of lost our momentum. We just didn’t have the offensive firepower to get back in the game.”

Duffy managed to stay in the game after the timeout and play the full 40 minutes – as she seemingly always does – but Notre Dame couldn’t stop the pendulum from swinging further and further towards Connecticut’s end.

“I realize, it’s my senior year, you can’t be worried about being fatigued and being tired. I’ve learned to push myself through all of it,” Duffy said. “We [only] have three games left, and we need to win every single one of them.”

But the Irish came into this game saying that same thing: “We need to win.”

For the past decade, the Irish have always said that they “need” to beat Connecticut.

Sometimes, they’ve needed to beat the Huskies for seeding going into the conference tournament. Other times, they’ve needed a win to secure a spot in the AP top-20.

But this year was different.

This year, Notre Dame entered the game floundering in the bottom third of the Big East with just two weeks remaining in the season. This year, the team had already succumbed to mediocre squads like Villanova, South Florida and St. John’s. This year, the Irish had been blown out on the road by Rutgers and DePaul before meeting the Huskies.

This year, the game was different. This year, the Irish entered in a serious funk with serious problems and an RPI that puts them on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Irish truly needed to win.

But they couldn’t correct their problems, and they couldn’t win.

Strother was just one of several Huskies to take advantage of Notre Dame’s biggest weakness all season – perimeter defense. Opponents entered shooting 37 percent against the Irish from behind the arc, and Connecticut raised that average against a flailing Notre Dame zone with a devastating 10-of-19 (52.6 percent) performance from long range.

“The guards did a poor job of finding the shooters [in the first half], and in the second half, I thought the back line did a poor job of finding the shooters,” McGraw said.

If the Irish, now three games under .500 in the Big East with three to play, hope to get to eight wins – a total they may need to garner an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament – they must correct that problem. The team’s next contest is against West Virginia, which has shown a propensity for shooting from deep. The Mountaineers are over 35 percent on the year behind the line.

Notre Dame did have a few encouraging moments Sunday, but they were fewer and further between as the game got into its most crucial stages.

Late in the game, Connecticut just kept on pounding the Irish on both ends of the court. The Huskies added bucket after bucket and made free throw after free throw to extend the lead to 18 with 4:22 remaining in the game.

Notre Dame cut the lead by five but never got within 10 points after Strother’s vital three. With four seconds left and the Irish still pressing, Connecticut’s Chadre Houston found Renee Montgomery for an easy layup to cap the scoring for the Huskies.

That was the final time Connecticut knocked the wind out of Notre Dame. The Irish need to hope the blows they took Sunday don’t carry over Wednesday against West Virginia, or else they may see their invitation to the Big Dance slip away.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Ken Fowler at [email protected]