Aug. 2, 2004
In many areas of society, the ability to spot the trends is paramount. For those in economic circles, having the foresight to note when the stock market may rise or fall can result in fortunes being won or lost several times over. The same can be said for those in the fashion world, where a particular style can vault a designer to new heights and put that person’s name on the lips of celebrities worldwide.
However, with all due respect to the folks on Wall Street and Rodeo Drive, followers of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team would argue that the most important trend has been the regularity with which the Irish have made a name for themselves on the college basketball scene.
The cycle began in the 1996-97 season, when Notre Dame opened with a third-place finish in the Preseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) and parlayed that showing into a 31-7 record and the program’s first-ever NCAA Final Four berth. That year, the Irish were led by a pair of All-America selections in Beth Morgan and Katryna Gaither, who proved to be the cornerstones of Notre Dame’s success. Among their more impressive achievements that year was a landmark win at No. 14 Texas in round two of the NCAA Tournament, a foreshadowing of things to come in future seasons.
Upon Morgan and Gaither’s graduation after the 1997 Final Four, the Irish were expected to come back to Earth as their roster was filled with players who had little or no postseason experience. Instead, Notre Dame maintained and expanded on its newfound level of excellence, stunning sixth-ranked Texas Tech on its home floor in the second round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament and adding another visit to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in 2000. The latter season ended on a sour note, however, as the Irish dropped a difficult four-point decision to that same Texas Tech club they had defeated two years earlier.
Nevertheless, the foundation had been laid for a memorable 2000-01 campaign. Once again, Notre Dame was overflowing with talent, boasting a starting lineup that included All-Americans Ruth Riley and Niele Ivey, not to mention the ’01 BIG EAST Conference Most Improved Player in Kelley Siemon and a rising sharpshooter/future All-American in Alicia Ratay. The result was magical, as the Irish finished 34-2 and won the program’s first national championship, claiming the NCAA title game over Purdue in dramatic fashion on Riley’s two free throws with 5.8 seconds to play.
With a championship in the books and a banner in the Joyce Center rafters, Notre Dame again was faced with the prospect of starting from scratch. In fact, when the Irish took the floor in their first NCAA Tournament game the following season, only five of the 12 players on the roster had taken part in a postseason contest. Still, Notre Dame advanced to the second round of the NCAA tourney in 2002, and a year later, the newest Irish incarnation used the postseason knowledge it had gained to get back to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, registering a blockbuster second-round win at No. 8 Kansas State along the way.Last season, Notre Dame made its second consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance (and sixth in the past eight years) and seemed poised to climb the next rung on the postseason ladder, owning a five-point lead over No. 5 Penn State midway through the second half. However, the basketball gods were not prepared to honor the Irish bid for advancement, as PSU rallied to score the final six points and take the hard-fought 55-49 victory.
Now, the 2004-05 season dawns and with it come numerous similarities to past years. For one, Notre Dame has a veteran roster that has been forged through the fires of postseason play. Heading into this season, eight of the 11 players on the squad have played in at least three NCAA Tournament games, with five of them having a full half-dozen postseason contests under their belts. What’s more, the Irish have a bushel of talent to call upon, led by senior All-America forward Jacqueline Batteast, the 2004 BIG EAST Most Improved Player in junior guard Megan Duffy and a 2003 freshman All-America selection in junior forward Courtney LaVere.
At the same time, one must remember the caveat that is read at the end of many late-night investment infomercials — “past performance is not always indicative of future results.” Veteran Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw would tend to agree with that disclaimer.
“The road to the Final Four can be filled with a lot of potholes,” she notes. “You have to be a little bit lucky in terms of staying injury-free, you have to consistently stay out of foul trouble and you have to get into the right bracket when the tournament starts.
“On the other hand, it absolutely would be great for us to win a national championship every four years,” she continues. “You certainly have to rely on your senior leadership and this is the senior class that we thought would be great for us. We do have high expectations for them, and we expect them to go out with the best finish of their careers. That’s why we think this should be a great year for us.”
Irish Leadership Will Be Found In The Front Line
To find the experience and leadership she seeks, McGraw needs look no further than her front line. Notre Dame will field one of the most seasoned post games in the country in 2004-05, with her three probable starters accounting for a combined 171 starting assignments in their respective careers. That’s a figure only one other team that advanced to last year’s NCAA Sweet Sixteen can match (Texas – 197).
Furthermore, the Irish are particularly deep in the post, having retained all five of their forwards/centers from last year. In fact, Notre Dame added even more muscle to its front line during the off-season with the addition of 6-5 freshman post Melissa D’Amico. The potent combination of size and experience has been one of the main reasons the Irish continue to be one of the nation’s top defensive teams, ranking among the top 50 in the nation in field-goal percentage defense and blocked shots each of the last five years, while ranking 39th in scoring defense last season (58.5 ppg.). In fact, Notre Dame has held its opponents to an average of fewer than 60 points per game in three of the past four years, including a school-record streak of seven consecutive games of 52 points or fewer last season.
However, McGraw points out that if Notre Dame expects to contend this year, it has to beef up an offense that has averaged fewer than 66 points per game the past three seasons, including 64.2 ppg. last year (its lowest output since averaging 60.0 ppg. in 1980-81).
“We got a lot of confidence last year, but the thing we really need to improve on is our scoring,” she says. “Defensively, we were really strong last year and we did a lot of great things. Now we have to get our offensive production back up to where it should be, and that’s something we want to focus on this year.”
Without question, the focal point of the Irish offense will be Batteast. A returning All-America selection and National Player of the Year candidate in 2004-05, she is coming off her best season in a Notre Dame uniform, averaging career bests of 16.0 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Batteast was a first-team all-BIG EAST pick last year and was sensational in the NCAA Tournament, registering three consecutive double-doubles while logging 22.0 points and 11.7 rebounds with a .483 field-goal percentage in Notre Dame’s run to the Sweet Sixteen. In addition, she was lethal against top-25 opponents last season, carding 16.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game with five double-doubles and three near double-doubles.
Irish head coach Muffet McGraw will look to senior Jacqueline Batteast to carry a portion of the team’s scoring load in 2004-05.
Entering her final season at Notre Dame, Batteast ranks 11th on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,315 points, and stands in the Top 10 on 10 other Irish career statistical charts, including rebounds (7th — 747), blocks (tie-5th — 124) and scoring average (4th — 14.6 ppg.). She also has scored in double figures 72 times in her 90-game career and has 32 double-doubles to her credit. However, her biggest asset has been her toughness — the South Bend native has started 64 consecutive games and has missed only four games in her three-year tenure (all due to a knee injury suffered late in her freshman campaign).
“Jackie is one of the best players in the country and without question, she ranks in the top 10 on that list,” McGraw says. “She can really determine the outcome of a game and she can just take over at any time. We saw that last year on several occasions, including in the Connecticut game, when she was just unstoppable, and all throughout the NCAA Tournament. We have total confidence in her and believe she is poised to have a tremendous senior season.”
LaVere is expected to hold down the other forward position. A freshman All-America choice in 2002-03 when she averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, LaVere saw her numbers dip slightly in her second season with the Irish, finishing at 8.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per night. Still, the Ventura, Calif., resident was a key force at both ends of the floor last year, leading the team and ranking fifth in the BIG EAST in blocked shots (1.28 bpg.), while scoring in double figures 13 times. She also came up with a critical double-double in Notre Dame’s first-round NCAA Tournament win over Southwest Missouri State, piling up 11 points and a career-high 13 rebounds while chipping in a pair of important overtime baskets to help the Irish defeat the Lady Bears.
For her career, LaVere is averaging 10.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. She has scored in double digits 34 times in 64 games, while collecting six double-doubles, and like Batteast, she has been particularly reliable, not missing a game in her first two seasons. McGraw points out that LaVere was her own biggest critic last season and is aiming to return to the form that she displayed as a rookie two years ago.
“Courtney is ready to get going again,” the Irish head coach says.”She wasn’t as happy with her sophomore year as she was with her freshman year. Since then, she has made a huge jump in terms of what she has to do mentally, and she’s worked really hard on her game during the off-season. She’s come out with renewed enthusiasm and her work ethic has been very good. We feel she can be a go-to player for us because she wants the ball in pressure situations, and she can make a big play for the team at both ends.”
Senior center Teresa Borton has been a steady presence in the middle for Notre Dame during the past three seasons. Despite several nagging injuries that have hampered her production at times, Borton has steadfastly refused to miss a practice or game, appearing in all 94 Irish games since her arrival and making 58 starts. Last year, her progress was delayed by off-season heel surgery and she wound up averaging 5.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.
Teresa Borton has been a factor on both ends of the floor for the Irish over the last three seasons.
Nevertheless, the Yakima, Wash., product has shown flashes of potential on both offense and defense throughout her career. She has scored in double figures 24 times and ranks seventh in school history for both career field-goal percentage (.536) and career blocks (93). McGraw hopes Borton’s determination and positive outlook will be rewarded with a breakout senior season.
“I have so much respect for Teresa because she has played through so much adversity,” McGraw says. “She hasn’t been 100 percent healthy in her entire career here and yet she refuses to sit out. She’s going to fight through the pain to help the team and won’t let herself fail. She has gained the respect of her teammates because she’ll do whatever it takes. We really want her to be a little more of an offensive threat and she’s willing to do that for us. She’s a great leader for this team and has such a great attitude.”
Supporting the starting front line, the Irish have a great deal of experience with senior Katy Flecky and sophomore Crystal Erwin back in the fold. Flecky has been in much the same position as Borton during her Notre Dame career, battling through numerous injuries that have put a crimp in her development. A versatile post who can play with her back to the basket, or step outside and bury a key three-pointer, Flecky has averaged 5.2 points and 3.2 rebounds in 86 career games, while scoring in double figures 13 times.
“Katy is really the `X’ factor for us this season,” McGraw observes.
“When she’s healthy and focused, she’s as good as anyone on our team. She gives us that element of flexibility that makes so many good teams dangerous. We’re hoping that she can step up and go out with a bang this year.”
Meanwhile, Erwin offers the element of extreme physicality that has McGraw smiling and opponents feeling uneasy. Displaying a mix of raw talent and boundless energy, Erwin often sent a buzz through the Joyce Center crowd every time she stepped on the court. She played in every game as a freshman for the Irish, logging 3.3 points and 2.1 rebounds per game with a respectable .447 field goal percentage. Now, after a year in the system, McGraw feels Erwin can make a significant contribution in 2004-05.
“Crystal does so many things that we need and that’s why we want her to take on a bigger role this year,” McGraw says. “She improved by leaps and bounds last year and she’s somebody who should be an impact player for us this season. She changes the look of our team just by entering the game, and with that new look, people now see us as a more physical basketball team.”
With the wealth of veterans returning in the post for Notre Dame this season, D’Amico will be able to develop gradually in her rookie campaign while getting adjusted to the college game. As one of the top players coming out of Long Island this past year, she averaged 20.7 points per game as a senior and earned fifth-team all-state honors. Her size alone will make her a valuable asset for the Irish and someone who will be counted on for greater things in the years to come.
“Melissa will definitely help us in the post, but with our experience there, she’ll be able to go along at her own pace,” McGraw says. “We hope she’s someone who can score on the block and create a defensive presence simply based on her height.”
Backcourt Will Be Led By Megan Duffy
A lot of coaches might be worried if they were faced with the prospect of losing more than half of their guards from last year’s club, including three players with national championship experience. That’s the predicament McGraw faces with her Irish backcourt this season and yet, the Notre Dame skipper addresses the situation with a wide grin and overflowing optimism.
The primary source of McGraw’s confidence is the constant, calming presence of Duffy at the point guard position. After cracking the starting lineup late in her freshman season, Duffy made tremendous strides last year, arguably showing more improvement that any other point guard in the country. She was able to triple her scoring average to 9.9 points per game, while doubling her assist (3.9 apg.) and field goal percentage (.404) totals and leading the team in both categories. Her familiarity with the Irish offense also was evident in her sharp 1.36 assist-to-turnover ratio, a figure that ranked seventh in the conference a year ago.
An honorable mention all-BIG EAST selection last season, Duffy assumed a leadership role from the outset, commanding respect from her teammates and coaches for her unbreakable will and discipline. On the court, she has displayed amazing court awareness and creativity, all while maintaining intense focus away from the hardwood (she earned Dean’s List honors in the spring 2004 semester with a 3.786 grade-point average). So it’s easy to see why McGraw has faith that her backcourt will be strong this season.
Megan Duffy will provide leadership and a veteran presence in the backcourt for the Irish in 2004-05.
“I don’t know if there’s anybody who works on her game the way Megan does, because she does things the right way,” McGraw says. “She sets goals for herself every time she’s on the floor, works extremely hard to meet those goals, and looks to get the freshmen to go out and match her intensity. She’s going to be a great leader because everybody knows she has the best interests of the team at heart. She’s one of the best in the country at knowing and understanding the game, and while it’s might be a clich?, she’s really a coach on the floor for us.”
A pair of sophomores will be the other returning veterans in the Notre Dame guard rotation. Breona Gray appeared in 29 games as a rookie last year, averaging 2.2 points and 1.6 rebounds per game while playing primarily in a defensive role. A scrappy, aggressive force, she is expected to fill a similar role for the Irish this season, although her speed and insatiable desire to improve will make her a threat in the team’s transition offense as well.
Conversely, Susie Powers was brought along gradually as a freshman, playing in 21 games for Notre Dame. A perimeter scoring threat, she will be called upon to shoulder some of the outside scoring load for the Irish in the wake of departed senior sharpshooter Jeneka Joyce. Powers is a superb ball handler and passer who should see regular minutes for the Irish this season.
“Breona contributed quite a bit for us as a freshman and had some really big games for us,” McGraw notes. “She’s going to play a pivotal role for us again this year as a defensive stopper. We feel comfortable putting her on the other team’s best player because she’s a great defender and works so hard.
“At the same time, Susie really needs to step up and be our best three-point shooter,” McGraw continues. “We want her to be the same kind of contributor that Jeneka was last year, coming off the bench and giving us a spark from the outside. Her size (5-10) also makes her a good asset at both ends, and we’re looking for her to step up her game defensively this season.”
Joining the Notre Dame backcourt will be two freshmen who bring impressive pedigrees with them. Charel Allen graduated from Monessen (Pa.) High School earlier this year as one of the leading scorers in Pennsylvania history, finishing fifth all-time with 3,110 points. Her prep statistical averages (26.1 ppg., 10.5 rpg., 5.0 apg., 6.4 spg., .351 three-point percentage) quickly raised eyebrows nationwide, but the four-time honorable mention All-America choice earned McGraw’s admiration for the unselfish manner in which she carried herself. In fact, Allen sacrificed a good deal of personal offensive production as a senior (her scoring average dropped by nearly four points per game) in order to help Monessen win its first Class A state championship and just the second ever by a western Pennsylvania school.
“Charel does so many things well, but one of her most impressive qualities is the way she makes those around her better,” McGraw says. “She has a true scorer’s mentality, which is something we certainly need this year. We are looking for someone who wants to shoot the ball, and she will be able to do that for us. She can also run the floor well and should fit into the college game very well.”
While Allen offers a proven scoring threat, point guard Tulyah Gaines brings speed — and lots of it. From the moment Gaines signed with the Irish last fall, McGraw maintained that the North Las Vegas, Nev., resident would be one of the fastest players in the history of the program. In some ways, she resembles recently-graduated Notre Dame guard Le’Tania Severe, giving the Irish quickness in transition, excellent defense and an extremely capable understudy for Duffy.Gaines averaged 20.5 points, 4.0 assists, 3.8 steals and 3.6 rebounds per game in her lone season at Cheyenne High School, picking up first-team all-conference honors along the way. She also was named an honorable mention all-state selection and capped her senior campaign by being named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Nevada. A two-time honorable mention prep All-American, Gaines spent her first three seasons at Burroughs High School in Burbank, Calif., setting that school’s single-season record for assists (122 in 2003).
“Tulyah is an outstanding defender and will help us to not feel the loss of Le’Tania quite as much,” McGraw says. “Tulyah is going to create havoc for the other teams’ point guards because she’s such a great on-ball defender. It’s going to be hard for other teams to keep up with her on the break because she can really push the ball up the floor. She also handles the ball well and has great court vision.”
2004-05 Schedule Maintains Tradition Of Taking On The Best
Part of the reason for Notre Dame’s success has been its traditionally-difficult schedule. This year’s incarnation of the Irish has cut its teeth against no less than 28 ranked opponents during the past three seasons, with the number of conference and non-conference games split evenly. Notre Dame also has the benefit of playing in one of the country’s toughest conferences, the BIG EAST, which has produced the last five national champions and tied an NCAA record by sending eight teams to the NCAA Tournament last year.
The Irish will tip off the 2004-05 season with their second-ever appearance in the Preseason WNIT, playing host to Illinois State in the opening round on Nov. 12. Aside from Notre Dame, eight other teams in this season’s 16-team field competed in the postseason last year, highlighted by NCAA Elite Eight qualifier Duke and NCAA second-round participant Ohio State. In addition, defending Pacific-10 Conference co-champion Arizona, Big 12 Conference member Nebraska and Western Athletic Conference contender Rice are slated to compete in the single-elimination event, which will be contested entirely at campus sites.
“We’re looking at the Preseason WNIT as a great way to get us off on the right foot,” McGraw says. “There are so many good teams in this year’s tournament that we are going to have to be ready to play right from the opening tip.”
The remainder of Notre Dame’s 2004-05 schedule has not yet be finalized (as of July 26), although the Irish do know a bit about their conference docket. With Miami and Virginia Tech leaving to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, a 12-team league remains for this season, with each squad facing five opponents twice (home and away), three at home and three on the road. All 12 teams will qualify for the BIG EAST Championship, which is scheduled for March 5-8, 2005, at the Hartford Civic Center.
Tentatively, Notre Dame will face Boston College, Connecticut, Rutgers, Seton Hall and Syracuse twice this season. Of that quintet, Connecticut is the three-time defending national champion, BC has advanced to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen the past two seasons, Rutgers has qualified for the last two NCAA Tournaments and Seton Hall reached the second round of the postseason WNIT a year ago. The Irish also will play host to Georgetown, St. John’s and West Virginia at the Joyce Center, with WVU coming off its first NCAA Tournament berth in 12 years. In addition, Notre Dame will pay visits to Pittsburgh, Providence and Villanova this season, with VU having made the last two NCAA Tournaments and advancing to the Elite Eight in 2003.
Muffet McGraw had put together another challenging schedule for her team in 2004-05.
“It’s going to a great year for our conference,” McGraw says. “We had nine teams get into the postseason last year, including eight in the NCAAs, and the rest of the league is really on the rise. You look at teams like St. John’s, Pittsburgh and Syracuse and they’re definitely going to make some noise in the near future. This league is getting stronger every day and I really don’t think the loss of Miami and Virginia Tech is going to cause the BIG EAST to suffer at all.”
When discussing the potential fortunes of this year’s Notre Dame women’s basketball team, one word has frequently popped up — confidence. Much like the program’s four-year trend of success, the last three seasons have seen the Irish exhibit a frustrating pattern of early non-conference struggles, followed by a rebirth in conference play, a brief hiccup in the BIG EAST Championship, and then major growth in the NCAA Tournament. However, McGraw feels her team is ready to shed its preseason modus operandi and move in a new direction in 2004-05.
“Confidence has definitely been a problem for this team in the past,” she notes. “Coming in following a national championship back in 2002 was much harder for them than we envisioned. But, since last January, when we beat teams like Connecticut and Boston College, we’ve started to figure out what we have to do. That shot of confidence will help us, but for this team to be really good this year, we have to play well early and perform much better on the road.
“We don’t have anyone left from our national championship team, so this is the time for our current players to put their own mark in the Notre Dame record books,” she continues. “We have great veteran leadership with Jackie Batteast, Megan Duffy and Teresa Borton, all of whom have earned the respect of their teammates for their actions both on and off the floor. With those three setting the tone, this team is ready to step out of the shadows of Ruth Riley, Niele Ivey and Kelley Siemon, and make a name for themselves right now.”