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ND Women’s Basketball: Successful season ends in Sweet 16 OT loss

Chris Masoud | Thursday, May 13, 2010

Heading into the 2009-2010 season, expectations couldn’t have been higher for a team laden with talent and experience, but with little to show for it. Notre Dame had not advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament since 2008, the program was breaking in a new home court and the squad featured four starting seniors and a number of questions about the future.

Yet the Irish met each challenge in turn. Notre Dame advanced to the Sweet 16, falling to Oklahoma in a gut-wrenching overtime loss. The team finished with a 16-1 record in the newly renovated Purcell Pavilion, notching a record six sellouts. Finally, the squad’s future success appears safely secured in the hands of freshman sensation Skylar Diggins, who put together one of the most complete rookie campaigns in program history.

In the eyes of Irish coach Muffet McGraw, it was a pretty good year.

“I was really pleased with the season,” McGraw said. “I thought we achieved our potential, we improved throughout the year. Individually, we had a lot of people who really had good years, which of course translated into the team’s success. I thought our senior leadership was outstanding — just a great group that we’re going to miss in so many ways next year on and off the court.”

Leading Notre Dame to a 29-6 (12-4 Big East) record, the senior class brought a number of tangibles to the floor — great ball-handling skills, the ability to shoot the ball from behind the arc, and finesse in the post. Guards Melissa Lechlitner and Ashley Barlow provided the offense from the perimeter. Guard Lindsay Schrader’s dribble-drive wreaked havoc in the lane, and forward Erica Williamson’s size provided support under the basket.

Despite the obvious talent on the floor, McGraw believes their intangibles were just as valuable to a team preparing for the next stage of its development. Confidence, determination, and mental toughness — each senior understood the value of those traits, and each brought her own version to the court every time she laced up.

“They were the type of players that were very hard workers,” McGraw said. “They come in with a great work ethic, they were determined to succeed, and they were team players. They were very steady and consistent in their attitude and approach to practice and games.”

Whether in the classroom or in the gym, the senior tandem represented the University in a way that many student-athletes strive to imitate, but so few can deliver — excellence in the classroom first, and success on the court a close second.

“They were excellent students, all five of them,” McGraw said. “Never any worries about them in any way. They were great leaders who always had a great attitude, were a confident bunch, and made it easy for the rest of the team to follow them. I think because they were such strong leaders, it leaves some big holes for us next year.”

Whether it was making the extra pass or being the first one off the bench to congratulate a teammate, great chemistry and a close team dynamic translated into wins on the court.

“First and foremost, I think all of us bring leadership,” Barlow said. “We’ve been here four years, some of us even five. We just get along with each other, we know how to work well with each other.”

Motivated by a first-round loss at home in the NCAA Tournament in 2009, Notre Dame began the season looking to run the table. And for a while it did, winning its first 15 games and peaking to the No. 3 spot in the AP polls before falling on the road on Jan. 16 to a Connecticut team who would eventually win it all.

Regardless of the game’s outcome, the Irish made women’s basketball history by becoming the first team, alongside the Huskies, to be featured on ESPN Women’s Basketball College Gameday. College Gameday made its debut in 1993 as Notre Dame hosted Florida State in a matchup of the top two football teams in the country, and McGraw said the players appreciated the significance of the event.

“The first ever Gameday was here [Notre Dame] for a football game, and that’s kind of how the whole Gameday thing got started,” McGraw said at the time. “So it’s kind of fun that Notre Dame is involved in the first historic event, now for women’s basketball.”

While the season’s success can be traced to the talent and resolve of the senior class, it would be difficult to imagine Notre Dame’s highlight film without the rookie Diggins taking center stage.

A 2009 McDonald’s All-American and the highest-ranked guard coming out of high school, the South Bend native had lofty expectations placed upon her from day one.

Diggins not only cracked the starting roster during the Paradise Jam in late November, but was named MVP of the tournament. Diggins went on to lead the Irish in points (13.8 per game), assists (112), and steals (90).

While McGraw came to expect Diggins’ contributions on the offensive end, her rapid development into a threat on defense continued to impress the coach as the season progressed.

“That was the part that surprised me I think — the defense on the ball,” McGraw said. “She really set the tone for the defense, and that was something that we worked on last year at the end of our season, to try to really focus this year on a much more intense, aggressive defensive. Skylar was a huge part of that.”

Yet not even Diggins’ raw talent alone could have garnered her All-Big East Second Team honors and an AP All-American honorable mention. The seniors’ greatest legacy may not be their own individual contributions, but their success in developing Diggins and the other underclassmen into legitimate Big East competitors in the years to come.

“It was a perfect time for her [Diggins] to come in as a freshman because she was able to learn from a very strong class,” McGraw said. “She didn’t ever have to feel like she had to do it all. She was able to ease in the college game and play her game without worrying about a lot of other things that the team just took care of. They helped her in a lot of ways, and gave her free reign to be creative and figure things out on her own.”

Lechlitner said she believes the ability of the seniors to maintain their composure and poise in the midst of a difficult situation was especially helpful to their younger teammates, who looked to follow in their example.

“We’re just a steady force,” Lechlitner said. “When adversity’s thrown or a game might be getting tight or we’re down a little bit, I think the steady hand that we offered for them allows them to play within themselves and excel from that point.”

Although the future is bright with Diggins running the offense, the Irish lose a cast of seniors that finishes as one of the most successful in program history. While they never made it to the Final Four, the seniors put together four years of high-octane basketball that Irish fans are not soon to forget.

As the squad begins the task of discovering a new identity and filling out the four remaining starting spots, McGraw believes a talented group coming through the pipes should be a factor in the mix.

“I expect that we will start with the players who came off the bench for us this year and see how quickly the freshmen are ready to challenge them,” McGraw said. “We have some depth, but we have a lot of inexperience. We’ll see by the time the Big East rolls around if the freshmen are pressuring to get that starting spot.”