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Quarterfinals loss in conference tournament sparks Irish

Allan Joseph | Thursday, December 2, 2010

A real eye-opener. A wake-up call. A reality check. A slap in the face.

These were just some of the terms the Irish players used to describe their shocking 2-0 upset by Connecticut in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament on Halloween. Coming into the game at 15-1-2 without a loss to a conference opponent since 2005 and without a home loss to a league foe since 1995, Notre Dame took the pitch flat, giving up a pair of second-half goals to suffer a shocking exit from the conference tournament.

“It’s one thing if we played well and lost, but we didn’t even play well on that day,” Irish coach Randy Waldrum said. “We were really flat. It was late, [the players] were taking things for granted — that we were good, and we just had to show up.”

Freshman defender Kecia Morway agreed with her coach.

“We went into that game kind of uninterested and unexcited because it was just another game,” she said. “It kind of re-motivated us because we realized that we actually have to work for our wins.”

There were no inspiring speeches after the loss. There was no emotional tirade. No tears were shed. There wasn’t even a players-only meeting to set the team straight. Rather, the Irish forged a steely resolve after they realized what was at stake.

“We just looked at each other and kind of knew,” junior forward Melissa Henderson said. “Everybody said what they needed to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to pick it up. Now it’s not all fun and games. It’s serious now. You lose and you’re out.'”

After Notre Dame slept off the sting from the loss, the team went back to business and worked to grow from the experience.

“I remember we had to go in the morning after and watch film at 5:30 in the morning, and I remember going to breakfast after that with a couple girls on the team,” junior defender Molly Campbell said. “We were just talking about how either the team would just implode or we would just kind of really respond. Obviously we responded the best way we could have.”

It wasn’t just a change in mentality that sparked the NCAA run, however. The loss prompted Waldrum to make a lineup change that would eventually pay huge dividends. Waldrum moved senior Lauren Fowlkes from the back line to the attack and put Campbell in her place. Waldrum was rewarded with a three-goal, two-assist effort from Fowlkes on the opening weekend of the tournament.

“The big question was whether [Campbell] could step in late in the season with not a lot of practice in that position and show some consistency, especially at a crucial time with the NCAAs, and she’s been fantastic there,” Waldrum said. “She’s been really the key — we knew Lauren could do that because we had her doing last year.”

Fowlkes’ offensive dynamism translated to the rest of the Notre Dame attack, as a formerly struggling offense found its stride in the most crucial games of the year.

“I think it really helped with our offense, obviously,” Henderson said. “Lauren’s really strong and a good player to play off of, so it gave us a little diversity up front.”

Before the loss, the team had been struggling through the latter stages of its conference slate, and Waldrum said that the defeat forced him to finally make the change he had been contemplating for some time.

“We’d still not lost a game in a while so I was a little reluctant to make the change,” he said. “I think that loss, as a coach, forced me to do what we needed to do to make those changes. I don’t know that I would have done that had we won that game.”

Despite all of the positives that came from the loss, the Irish still maintain they would have preferred to win the game with Connecticut.

“It’s hard to say that’s it’s a good thing that we lost,” Henderson said.

Her coach agreed.

“You never want to lose,” Waldrum said. “I would rather have won, and won the Big East tournament, don’t get me wrong.”

After the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Waldrum used one more phrase to describe the Connecticut game — this one more positive than the one his players used.

“A blessing in disguise,” he said.