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Women’s Basketball: Strong road victories dictate productive break

Jay Fitzpatrick | Thursday, January 18, 2007

While most Notre Dame students went home for winter break, the Irish continued their season, winning six of eight games – including road victories at Valparaiso and Seton Hall.Notre Dame finished its non-conference schedule in style, going on a four-game winning streak before falling to No. 4 Tennessee in Knoxville 78-54. The Irish carried their quality play from their non-conference schedule into early matchups against Big East opponents, starting off 3-1 against conference foes, including an 83-65 win over St. John’s Tuesday night.

Non-conference playGoing into the break, Notre Dame was coming off a tough home loss to in-state rival Indiana in front of one of the biggest crowds in Joyce Center history. But the Irish were able to regroup and recover in order to prepare for their next game against Purdue Dec. 6.”I think we looked at that game and really learned a lot from that game,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think the thing I was most impressed with this team is the resiliency, their ability to bounce back. They don’t dwell on losses.”The Irish were able to shave off an 11-point second half deficit in order to win 67-58 against the Boilermakers Dec. 6. “I think to beat Purdue was a huge win for us, a great win for the NCAA Tournament,” McGraw said. “It was really important for our confidence.”Notre Dame’s two captains – junior guard Tulyah Gaines (20 points, five assists) and senior guard Breonna Gray (22 points, two assists) – helped will the team to victory, scoring almost two-thirds of the team’s total points. One of the keys to the Irish’s success in stopping the Boilermakers, especially in the second half, was their effective 1-3-1 zone. A strong 14-4 second half run by the Irish, capped off by a strong inside shot made by Gaines, brought the Irish to within one at 45-44. With three minutes to play in the second half, Gray made a three-pointer to put Notre Dame ahead for the first time in the game at 53-52. Sloppy play by the Boilermakers, including shot clock violations and late turnovers, helped extend the Irish lead in the second half.Using momentum from Purdue, the Irish were able to cruise past IUPUI on Dec. 16 75-65 before a showdown at Valparaiso Dec. 19. Notre Dame used a similar strategy against the Crusaders as they had already done against Michigan Dec. 1 – stay close the length of the game and nail free throws late.”We always play poorly up there [in Valparaiso],” McGraw said. “I knew it was going to be a close game – I didn’t know it was going to be a one-point game.”The Irish led by three with 26 seconds left when Crusader forward Becky Rietema sank a layup whiled being fouled by Irish guard Charel Allen. Rietema made the free throw to tie the score. The Irish held onto the ball until almost the end of regulation, when Gray was fouled with 1.2 seconds remaining. Gray sank the first of her two free throws to give the Irish a 60-59 lead, one they would hold onto in the final second to win. For McGraw, this game was crucial because it helped set the tone for the tough upcoming matches her team would have to face.”It was just really good to win that game because I think we were thinking about going home, it was the last game before break, and there was a lot going on,” she said.Following the big win against Valparaiso, the Irish finished their four game win streak with an easy 94-55 win over Prairie View A&M Dec. 28 before heading south to face Tennessee in Knoxville.

TennesseeThe Irish entered the Thompson-Boling Arena riding a four-game win streak, but left with a 78-54 loss to the No. 4 Lady Volunteers to extend their overall record to 0-18 against Tennessee Dec 30.For both teams, it was their final game before heading into conference play. For the Lady Vols, they were playing an unranked Irish team that would help fine tune their game before heading into SEC play. But for McGraw and the Irish, this game was crucial in establishing where they stood as a team and how well they could expect to perform in the Big East.”It’s kind of a barometer of where you are and how things look for the NCAA Tournament,” McGraw said.In the first half, the Irish were able to hang tough against the Lady Vols, trailing by no more than eight the entire half. Moreover, the Irish went on an 8-2 run to finish the half down only 29-27. “We played really well in the first half of the Tennessee game and made them played bad,” McGraw said. “I think the defense did a lot of good things.”Even though Notre Dame continued to hustle throughout the second half, they were no match for the overpowering Tennessee lineup, who had three players in their starting five with double-figures in scoring – Sidney Spencer (17 points), Candace Parker (22 points) and Shannon Bobbitt (17 points).Tennessee’s lead slowly grew in the second half, but the Irish never gave up – made evident by their 13-2 run to finish off the game. The final score was even more important in showing Notre Dame’s effort as Tennessee led by as many as 34 with less than five minutes remaining in the game.McGraw credited her team’s resilience as a constant factor in their successes this season, especially against the Lady Vols.”That’s really been the most impressive thing about this group is that they’re just ready to move on,” she said. “We never have to try to get them to practice hard. They’re just ready. Their intensity and their work ethic – they bring it every day.”The main reason McGraw wanted her team to play in Knoxville in front of a sell-out crowd of over 19,000 was for the experience for later against Big East foes.”We need to know how to play when we go to Connecticut and when we go to some tough places in the Big East on the road,” she said “It prepares us for that.”

The Big EastNotre Dame opened its conference play with strong wins over Seton Hall and Cincinnati before losing at USF in overtime.The first game against Seton Hall Jan. 2 was important for the Irish in establishing itself as an NCAA Tournament team. The 64-61 victory showcased Notre Dame’s ability to win close games down the stretch, in addition to providing a quality conference win on the road.”We went to Seton Hall and that we knew was going to be a tough game because they beat us last year,” McGraw said. “Seton Hall plays really well at home and that was a must-win game for us. So I was really pleased to come out of there with a win.”The Irish were unable to put the Pirates away, despite leading for most of the second half. The one time the Irish did fall behind in the second half, they were able to go on an 8-2 run to reestablish their lead. Allen led the Irish in scoring with 16 points and 10 rebounds for the first double-double of her career.Late free throws by Gray cemented the Irish victory, giving them a three point lead with only seconds remaining. Despite a late layup by forward Heta Korpivaara to cut the lead to three, the Irish were able to hang onto their first conference win.After topping Seton Hall, the Irish returned to the Joyce Center to face off against Cincinnati Jan. 10, easily winning by a final score of 81-70. Against the Bearcats, the offensive spark came from Gaines, who scored 27 points and notched five assists while leading Notre Dame’s offense.Cincinnati was able to shut down the Irish early, scoring the game’s first five points and maintaining the lead for the first six minutes of the game. But a Gaines layup gave the Irish the lead with 12:46 remaining, and they never looked back. Cincinnati would trail by as many as 19 in the second half.The first real test for the Irish came in their final game during break on the road against South Florida Jan. 13. The Irish struggled throughout the game, committing a season-high 33 personal fouls against the Bulls, sending them to the line an Irish-opponent record 45 times en route to an 87-78 USF win in overtime.”We had three people foul out and four people with four fouls, so it was a hard game for us,” McGraw said. “But to take it into overtime when they beat us here last year was big.”Freshman center Erica Williamson led the Irish effort against USF, tallying the first double-double of her career with 10 points and a Notre Dame freshman record 18 rebounds. Another Irish freshman – guard Melissa Lechlitner – was also integral for the Irish, totaling 11 points and four assists in the loss. Most importantly for Lechlitner, three of her 11 points game at the end of regulation, when she sank a shot from beyond the arc to send the game into overtime.Despite the loss, Notre Dame has still started strong in its Big East schedule with a 3-1 record including Tuesday’s win over St. John’s.”Last year we started 0-2 and two games we should have won. This year we’ve taken care of beating the team’s we’re supposed to beat,” McGraw said. “We feel like we’re off to a great start. We’re playing well, we’re confident. It’s nice to see us in the top part of the conference.”