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Sports

‘A Dream Manifested’: 20 years later, the impact of 2001 ND women’s basketball title run is still felt

| Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The injuries. The NCAA Tournament shortcomings of prior years. The Big East championship loss to UConn. The double-digit deficit in the national championship.

All that — and more — only begins to define the adversity faced by the 2001 Notre Dame women’s basketball team. But for a group led by five seniors, no adversity was enough to stop them from reaching the summit of college basketball and winning the NCAA Tournament, a peak never before reached by an Irish basketball team — men’s or women’s.

“We were clicking on all cylinders, our chemistry was incredible,” current Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey — who was a fifth-year senior on that ‘01 team — said. “Ruth Riley battled a lot of injuries, Kelley Siemon had her broken hand that year — we battled through so much, and our group had such a strong core.”

Ivey herself had battled adversity throughout her playing career. After choosing a Notre Dame program on the upswing as a promising recruit, Ivey suffered two torn ACLs. One cost her most of her first-year season. The other injury happened during the 1999 postseason, as her season ended in the Big East Semifinals, while the Irish went on to lose in the second round of the tournament. In 2001, with that senior-laden squad, Ivey returned as a fifth-year due to a medical redshirt, and she quickly locked in on her goal.

“This was my fifth year, I wanted to stay focused,” Ivey said. “I looked at the schedule with the coaches, and then I found out the Final Four was in St. Louis.”

Ivey hails from St. Louis, and the Final Four was slated to be played approximately 15 minutes away from her own home.

“I was all business,” she said. “That was my motivation, my goal. Everything I was doing was preparing to try and lead us there. I was very serious about that.” 

Ivey was certainly a leader, but she was not alone on an Irish squad full of experience and with high expectations. Ruth Riley dominated inside for the Irish, averaging over 18 points and nearly 8 rebounds per game. Alicia Ratay shot an astounding 55% from 3-point range, while Ivey was no slouch herself, pouring in triples at a 44% rate. Jeneka Joyce was a 38% shooter from distance off the bench, as the trio took 356 of Notre Dame’s 373 three-point attempts, leading the nation’s No. 1 3-point shooting offense. Throw in Kelley Siemon and Ericka Haney — both averaging over 11 points per game in the starting lineup — and the Irish offense was a dominant force, with plenty of motivation to be had from previous painful postseason exits.

“We had all the pieces. That year was the blueprint of what a national champion team should look like,” Ivey said, referring to the Irish team’s makeup as they entered the season. “Having five seniors that year, I think, was the difference. And having come up short the years prior, we were ready.”

The Irish dominated all season with just a pair of losses, by a combined three points to their name. They extended a 25-game home winning streak to 42 with a 17-0 record against visiting opponents. They survived an early test against Georgia (75-73) en route to a 23-0 start to the season. But the undefeated season ended in painful fashion: Ivey had a potential game-winning shot blocked as time expired against No. 11 Rutgers, which led to a 54-53 loss. The Irish rebounded with four consecutive victories, including an 89-33 thumping of Georgetown to end the regular season.

However, the postseason did not get off to an ideal start for the Irish. After an easy Big East semifinals victory, they were tripped up by UConn — Huskies legend Sue Bird drilled a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer for the 78-76 win and the conference title. But it wasn’t the last time the Irish saw the Huskies in 2001. And Ivey and the rest of the squad were just getting started.

“We had a lot of experience, and a lot of heart,” Ivey said. “We were battle-tested, we were battle-ready. We gained more confidence, game after game. We were so sharp in every aspect, we played with such passion.”

The tournament loss didn’t phase Notre Dame, who escaped the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament with total ease, doubling up Alcorn State 98-49 and thumping rival Michigan 88-54 to reach the Sweet 16, the scene of their last tournament exit. However, after some early stumbling blocks, the Irish pulled away in the second half to go at least one step further, toppling Utah 69-54. In the Elite Eight, Notre Dame saw some adversity, tied at the half 40-40, but ultimately Riley took over, notching 32 points in the game, as the Irish handled Vanderbilt 72-64.

The victory meant UConn was up next for the Irish in the Final Four — the furthest Notre Dame had ever advanced. And it looked like the road was destined to end there, as the Huskies raced to a 16-point lead in the first half, and they lead 52-37 early in the second half, with Notre Dame struggling to do much of anything. But leadership and poise kicked in; after suffering a minor sprain in the first half, Ivey returned in the second half and directed the Irish offense, leading a 24-7 run. Ratay drilled a three-pointer for Notre Dame’s first lead at 61-59, and the Irish poured it on from there. They held UConn without a field goal for over a 5-minute stretch, after falling back behind, 65-63. The 14-0 run put Notre Dame in control, and they put the Huskies away, 90-75. In the first of two Final Four games in her hometown, Ivey notched 21 points to put the Irish on the brink of history.

It didn’t come easy there, either, as Notre Dame faced in-state rival and 1999 national champion Purdue on the game’s biggest stage, again going down by double digits in the first half. This time, there was no giant run to seize control, as Notre Dame chipped away and kept the game within reach. Riley was a dominant force all game, notching 28 points, 13 rebounds and 7 blocks. But a 1-10 performance from beyond the arc prevented Notre Dame from making major runs. After going down 12 in the first half, Notre Dame found themselves still trailing, 49-41, with just over 12 minutes left. But it was both the stars (Riley, Ivey and Co.) and the underrated role players coming through for the Irish down the stretch. Jeneka Joyce tied the game with a pair of free throws, and Ivey would give Notre Dame a 64-63 lead with just over a minute to play. After a 3-point play by Purdue, Riley tied the game with a shot of her own, secured a defensive rebound, got fouled and sunk two clutch free throws with 5 seconds to play. When Purdue’s last-ditch effort fell short, the raucous celebration was on.

“I was in shock. It was a dream manifested. It was something I had visualized that had come to life,” Ivey said. “I just couldn’t believe we were actually experiencing that euphoria.”

Ivey went into further detail on her personal journey, and what the championship meant to her.

“Definitely one of the top moments. I had a lot of adversity I had to overcome,” she said. “I had 2 ACL surgeries, I had a fifth year. To be able to battle back from those injuries, to be part of a team that won its first national championship … to do something that was so powerful in this community and this program is something that I will never take for granted and I’m so blessed to have been a part of that.”

Considering the timing of this championship, it’s no wonder it meant so much to the Notre Dame community. Long considered a football school, the Irish had fallen upon tough times on the gridiron, with zero top-10 finishes or bowl victories to their name since 1994. The Irish had never claimed a title in basketball, but the women’s basketball program had been on the verge of cementing themselves as an elite team, with a Final Four appearance in 1997, and seven straight seasons with 21-plus wins. The desire to bring back national championship glory to South Bend was not only a clear aim for the team — it was a shared sentiment among the students and local community.

“We landed at 1 or 2 a.m. and the bus drove to Main Circle,” Ivey recalled. “A lot of fans and students and people from the South Bend community came out to celebrate with us. Coming back to campus and being able to share that moment with the Notre Dame community and the South Bend community was really special.”

Twenty years later, Ivey has continued to help bring the Irish program to new heights. As an assistant under her old head coach, Muffett McGraw, Ivey helped guide Notre Dame to a 2018 championship. And now, she’s succeeded the legendary McGraw as head coach of the Irish. 

“I always felt like coming back here and having this experience to be the head coach of Notre Dame is a full circle moment,” Ivey said. “I love this university so much, I’m so passionate about Notre Dame and Notre Dame women’s basketball. Now I get a chance to lead this program I love so much.”

Ivey loves Notre Dame — and she can be certain that the Irish love her back. While names like Rockne, Montana, Rudy and others populate the lore of the blue and gold, Ivey and her squad etched their own names into the glorious history of Notre Dame athletics, setting a new precedent for excellence in South Bend.

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