March 1, 1999
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) – On a night that No. 8 Notre Dame looked back to find the motivation to win, No. 7 Rutgers made the mistake of looking ahead.
Sheila McMillen and Niele Ivey combined for seven 3-pointers in a 43-point first-half that led Notre Dame to a 68-61 win over Rutgers in the Big East Conference tournament semifinals on Monday night.
“We had quite a bit of motivation,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said, noting that most reports have been touting a second-straight UConn-Rutgers final in recent days. “There were some things in the papers and some things said before the game that really motivated us.”
The win advanced the third-seeded Irish (25-3) to the conference title game for the third time in four years, but they again face the daunting task of trying to beat No. 6 Connecticut, the five-time defending champions.
The top-seeded Huskies, who crushed Notre Dame 106-81 in December, cruised into the finals with a 77-42 win over fifth-seeded Georgetown.
“It’s going to take a monumental effort, a lot of it will be mental,” McGraw said. “We have to come out and handle the pressure, come out right away and play like we did tonight.”
Notre Dame’s chances of winning this year suffered a big blow when Ivey, the Irish point guard, sprained her left knee with 14:22 to play and left the game. She was helped off the floor but returned and sat on the end of the bench with her knee wrapped until the closing seconds. She finished with 16 points and a team-high six assists.
“I feel like we won the battle and lost the war,” McGraw said. “She was on her way to a spectacular game. She wanted to prove she was the best point guard in the Big East and I think she was proving that tonight. We didn’t need any more motivation but that gave us more, we wanted to win the game for her.”
McMillen had 19 points in leading Notre Dame to its 16th win in 17 games. The only loss in that span was 77-57 loss here to Rutgers, a game in which the crowd chanted “overrated” at the Irish players in the final moments.
The insult was avenged on Monday night as Notre Dame opened a 15-point halftime lead and then hung on to break a nine-game winning streak by Rutgers (26-5).
“That motivated us,” McMillen said. “Coming off that game we knew we didn’t bring our game. But everybody brought what we had tonight.”
Shawnetta Stewart had 18 points and Tammy Sutton-Brown 13 for Rutgers, which was everyone’s pick to be the team to supplant UConn on top of the Big East.
Stewart said the Knights weren’t ready for Notre Dame’s early intensity.
“They were fired up,” she said. “You saw how they came out in the first five minutes.”
She also said the players were looking forward to another game with UConn, which beat them for the title last year.
“I think we all were and we didn’t take care of tonight’s business,” Stewart said.
The Knights came into the contest with the nation’s second-best scoring defense at 54.9 points. They had not given up more than 35 points in the first half in any game.
Notre Dame hit 7 of 11 three-points and 15 of 26 shots from the field in opening a 43-28 halftime lead. Ivey hit a 3-pointer to put the Irish ahead 27-24 with 5:48 to play.
After a layup by Davalyn Cunningham made it a one-point game, the Irish scored 16 straight points. Ivey had five in the spurt and Ruth Riley six of straight at one point. Riley finished with 10.
While Notre Dame struggled after Ivey went down, Rutgers never made a big run. The closest it got was 65-59 on a 3-pointer by Stewart with 32 seconds to go. The win was Notre Dame’s first in four games at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
By TOM CANAVAN
AP Sports Writer