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Recipe for success for Irish in tourney: toughness

Jay Fitzpatrick | Thursday, March 5, 2009

If Notre Dame wants to do well this weekend, it is going to have to be the toughest team in Connecticut for at least four days.

That isn’t to say the Irish aren’t a talented team. Their 21 wins – including 10 in the always competitive Big East – and four players in double figures speaks for itself. But so does the play of Notre Dame’s potential opponents in the tournament.

Even though Notre Dame’s first game is against two teams limping into the conference tournament – St. John’s has lost six of its last seven and Syracuse has only three wins in its last 13 games – Irish coach Muffet McGraw said her team’s games against those two were both tight matchups.

“They were both really good games. The St. John’s game we had to defend the 3-point line to win and that was a very close game,” she said. “And the Syracuse game was close throughout.”

Notre Dame beat the Red Storm 70-67 on Jan. 17 and the Orange 90-79 on Feb. 24.

But in the conference quarterfinals, things start to get interesting. The Irish replay Villanova, which had a murderous finish to its conference season.

The Wildcats waited until the end of February before playing Pitt, Louisville and Connecticut – the top three teams in the conference – and two of those games were on the road. And after a disappointing loss to South Florida to end the regular season, Villanova will no doubt be hungry for a win to flash in front of the NCAA Selection Committee.

And even if the Irish make it past Villanova, there looms UConn – the undefeated, top-ranked, seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of women’s basketball.

The Irish have put up the best Davidic fight against the goliath Huskies, losing by only 10 points in Hartford on Feb. 22. Although McGraw hesitated saying her team played close with Connecticut, that was UConn’s smallest margin of victory for the season and Notre Dame’s 6-0 lead early was its largest deficit all season.

But that’s what Notre Dame has going for it. The team is made up of, in McGraw’s own word, fighters.

“When they get down by a few points it doesn’t bother them. They can take a punch and give punches,” she said. “They can get that killer instinct.”

No more evident was that when the Irish played Vanderbilt earlier this season, overcoming an 18-point deficit to win by two on the road.

“We just don’t want to lose,” Irish forward Becca Bruszewski said. “You wouldn’t be playing college basketball if you wanted to lose.”

The fighter’s attitude goes throughout the entire team.

Center Erica Williamson’s self-professed favorite thing about playing defense is taking charges.

McGraw said guards Lindsay Schrader and Melissa Lechlitner play with a great deal of passion, all of which trickles down to the rest of the team.

Anyone who has seen junior guard Ashley Barlow play in the last few years knows she must be closing in on the NCAA record for most times falling down in a career. But she always gets up and gets right back to work, no matter how many different bags of ice she has to schlep to the interview room after the game.

McGraw said that this “blue-collar attitude” is not a new development, and she’s right.

Last year’s starting point guard Tulyah Gaines would do what it took to get the ball in the hoop, if that meant dishing it off or knowing when to control of the game – just like Lechlitner. Former guard Breona Gray did a lot of things that wouldn’t show up in the stats, things like accepting defensive responsibilities against the top scorers from the other team – just like McGraw will soon ask freshman Fraderica Miller to do.

The Irish need to make sure they bring this mindset with them to Hartford, because it is the best cure for what has ailed the Irish all season long.

When they have failed to score, tough, gritty defense has kept them in games. When they have needed an extra rebound or two to secure a lead, someone – usually Barlow or Schrader – has found a way to rise above the rest and grab the board. When they have played teams they seemingly had no business running with – like Connecticut – they have found a way to grind it out for 40 minutes and hang with some of the top teams in the nation.

And when they’ve gotten punched, they punch back.

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

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