April 14, 2005
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – What a difference a decade makes.
When Notre Dame announced it was joining the BIG EAST Conference in 1995, the Irish knew they would be in for some changes. Up to that point, Notre Dame had appeared in two NCAA Tournaments in its 18-year history and had yet to make it out of the first round. Furthermore, the Irish had never logged more than 23 wins in a season and had been ranked nationally in just one season (1990-91, when they peaked at No. 19 in the Associated Press poll and No. 18 in the coaches’ poll).
Fast forward to 2005, when Notre Dame celebrated its 10-year anniversary as a BIG EAST member. It has been a decade of excellence for the Irish, who have averaged better than 25 wins per season during that time, placing among the top three teams in the powerful BIG EAST on nine occasions. What’s more, Notre Dame has advanced to the NCAA Tournament every season, moving on to the Sweet Sixteen (regional semifinals) six times, with two trips to the Final Four and the program’s first national championship in 2001. The Irish also have been a regular fixture in the national polls, appearing in the Top 25 in nine of the past 10 seasons.
Obviously, the standards of the Notre Dame women’s basketball program have risen dramatically since the Irish played their first BIG EAST Conference game against Rutgers on Nov. 28, 1995 (a 66-54 victory at the Joyce Center).
This year’s team had a singular purpose in mind – get to the Final Four, which was scheduled for the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, virtually in Notre Dame’s own backyard. The Irish had every reason to expect that goal was attainable, especially with four starters and seven monogram winners returning from a club that had made a second consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2003-04 and defeated seven ranked opponents along the way.
With the intention of building some valuable postseason capital, not to mention gaining experience against top-notch competition, Notre Dame took part in the Preseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) for the second time in the program’s history. Eight seasons earlier, a promising Irish squad placed third in the Preseason WNIT and parlayed that finish into a Final Four berth. This year’s edition hoped for similar karma.
Following early-round victories over Illinois State and Nebraska, Notre Dame welcomed sixth-ranked Duke to the Joyce Center for a Preseason WNIT semifinal game that took on the look and feel of an NCAA Tournament affair. The teams battled through a tense first half before it finally appeared the Blue Devils had taken control, opening up an eight-point lead late in the second half. That’s when Notre Dame showed heart and determination worthy of a national champion, reeling off 10 unanswered points and going on to defeat Duke, 76-65.
Three nights later in the Preseason WNIT championship game against No. 10/9 Ohio State, the Irish once again found themselves having to come from behind, as the Buckeyes took an eight-point lead with five minutes to play. However, just as it had done against Duke in the semifinals, Notre Dame found the strength and resolve to pull out a victory, scoring the game’s final 12 points and holding off a last-second three-point attempt by OSU to win the Preseason WNIT, 66-62.
The euphoria from that early-season tournament title carried through the end of November, as the Irish took victories over Colorado State, USC and Valparaiso. At 7-0, Notre Dame had risen to third in both national polls heading into its Dec. 2 matchup with No. 15 Michigan State (the eventual national runner-up). The Irish were hungry for redemption against the Spartans, who had dealt Notre Dame a 29-point loss the year before. For a time, it appeared that storyline would repeat itself, as MSU opened up a 13-point lead in the second half. Yet, the Irish clawed all the way back and were poised to oust the Spartans, holding a six-point lead with 30 seconds left. That’s when the first chink in Notre Dame’s armor appeared, as some uncharacteristic miscues down the stretch allowed Michigan State to force the game into overtime, where the Spartans prevailed, 82-73.
Undaunted, the Irish bounced back from their first loss with six consecutive wins, jumping back up to fourth in the AP poll and third in the coaches’ rankings, heading into an early January game at Villanova. The Wildcats had been a thorn in Notre Dame’s side of late and this season was no exception, as Villanova’s motion offense caused just enough trouble for the Irish and led to a 59-54 Wildcat upset win. The effects of that loss carried over into Notre Dame’s next game, which just happened to be against three-time defending national champion Connecticut. The Huskies were in no mood to help heal the Irish wounds, pulling away in the second half to hand Notre Dame its second consecutive loss.
At 13-3, the Irish found themselves reaching a crossroads in their season, as traditional rival Purdue came to town. Returning to the scrappy, courageous form that had been its trademark earlier in the year, Notre Dame rolled past the Boilermakers, 86-69, igniting a season-long 10-game winning streak. In that time, the Irish toppled five ranked opponents, including No. 6/7 Rutgers (scoring 23 of the game’s final 25 points to stun the Scarlet Knights) and No. 9/10 Connecticut (winning in Storrs for the first time ever and ending the Huskies’ 112-game BIG EAST regular-season home winning streak that lasted 12 years).
For all intents and purposes, when Notre Dame and Rutgers met for their rematch on Feb. 19 in Piscataway, N.J., the conference regular-season title was at stake, with the victor having the inside track to the crown with less than two weeks left to play. The Irish came out of the gate slowly and the speedy Scarlet Knights took full advantage, opening up a 12-point halftime lead and forcing Notre Dame into a season-high 23 turnovers en route to a 59-48 victory.
Wins over West Virginia and Seton Hall allowed the Irish to clinch a tie with Connecticut for second place in the BIG EAST standings. Notre Dame then advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament for the first time since 2001 with another victory over WVU. The reward was a third contest against UConn, this one at the Hartford Civic Center. In front of a partisan Husky crowd, the Irish came up short, dropping a 67-54 decision.
For the 10th consecutive season, Notre Dame earned an NCAA Tournament berth, as the Irish were tapped as the No. 4 seed in the Tempe Region, sending them to Fresno, Calif., for a first-round contest against perennial Big West Conference champion UC Santa Barbara. Following a nip-and-tuck first half, Notre Dame jumped out to a 12-point lead midway through the second period. The Gauchos came back and got as close as four points with three minutes to go, but the Irish ended the game on an 11-5 run, hitting seven of eight free throws in crunch time to seal a 61-51 victory.
That set up a second-round contest with Arizona State, which had added incentive as a Sun Devil win would send ASU back home to Tempe for the Sweet Sixteen. But, the early returns seemed to be squarely in Notre Dame’s favor, as the Irish stormed out to a 13-point lead with less than four minutes remaining in the first half. That margin didn’t last long, however, as Arizona State outscored Notre Dame, 9-1 to end the period and close within five at halftime.
The ASU momentum carried over into the second half, with the Sun Devils going on an 18-4 run to open the frame. Suddenly trailing by nine, the Irish tried to battle back, getting as close as four points with 2:34 to play. In the end, it wouldn’t be enough, as Notre Dame’s season came to a sudden end by a 70-61 score.
During the course of a magnificent 27-6 season, several Irish players achieved high-profile awards. Senior forward Jacqueline Batteast was almost universally lauded as one of the nation’s top players, earning Kodak/WBCA All-America and Associated Press Third-Team All-America honors, as well as being named the BIG EAST Player of the Year. A four-time all-BIG EAST pick (the first Irish player ever to be so honored), Batteast averaged a career-high 16.9 points per game this season, along with 6.6 rebounds per game and six double-doubles. She ended her stellar collegiate career ranked among the top five on 16 of Notre Dame’s career statistical lists, including points (4th – 1,874), rebounds (4th – 965), blocked shots (3rd – 167) and double-doubles (2nd – 38).
Junior guard Megan Duffy also was an impact player for the Irish this season. Stamping herself as a legitimate contender for next year’s Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award (given to the nation’s top senior player standing 5-foot-8 and under), Duffy earned honorable mention All-America laurels from Kodak/WBCA and the Associated Press after averaging career bests of 12.3 points and 5.4 assists per game. She led the BIG EAST in steals (2.73 spg.) and free throw percentage (school-record .895), ranking fourth nationally in the latter category. In addition, she proved to be a gritty, tough leader on and off the floor for Notre Dame, carding a school-record 37.0 minutes per night and almost single-handedly battling the Irish back into contention in their two postseason losses (Connecticut and Arizona State). In fact, she averaged 19.5 ppg. with a .579 field goal percentage (.611 three-point ratio) in the postseason, including a season-high 24 points in the ASU game.
Senior Teresa Borton closed out her Notre Dame career by earning her first BIG EAST Player of the Week award on the final week of the 2004-05 regular season. Borton did not miss any of the 127 games in her four-year tenure, averaging career bests of 8.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game this season. Meanwhile, freshman guard Charel Allen gave Notre Dame fans a glimpse of things to come by earning BIG EAST All-Freshman Team honors and a BIG EAST Freshman of the Week citation after coming off the bench to average 7.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. She also stepped up in some of the year’s biggest games, scoring 16 points against Duke and adding 11 points in the historic win at Connecticut before her season was abruptly ended when she suffered a knee injury in the second half of the Arizona State game.
Perspective is sometimes an underappreciated quality and it says a lot about the progress made by the Notre Dame women’s basketball program when a 27-6 record and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament leave everyone hungry for more. The 2004-05 season was one of the finest in school history and will leave a lasting imprint on the Irish record books. Three starters and nine monogram winners will be back next season, looking to build upon the experiences of this year and add another layer to the ever-growing tradition of success that is Irish women’s basketball.
— ND —