April 16, 2003
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – One of the cardinal rules of geometry states that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. However, in the case of the 2002-03 Notre Dame women’s basketball team, the path between Point A and Point B was full of hairpin turns and occasional roadblocks. Still, the Irish would not be swayed and in the end, they found a way to reach their goal, advancing to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the fifth time in the last seven years.
Heading into this season, Notre Dame boasted a great deal of stability and experience upon which to build. The Irish had nine monogram winners and three starters back from the ’01-02 club which also posted a 20-win campaign and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. After going through the rigors of a full college basketball season, Notre Dame’s highly-touted freshman class had developed into a corps of wily veterans, poised to make their mark on the national scene. Two more elements were added to the mix this season, as a pair of talented freshmen joined the Irish roster, giving Notre Dame a firm foundation upon which to build its next title contender.
With a full stable of talent anxious to bolt from the starting gate, the Irish opened the season in impressive fashion, ringing up four consecutive victories. A 107-65 opening-night thrashing of Cleveland State gave the Joyce Center faithful a taste of the offensive firepower Notre Dame possessed in 2002-03. The Irish then went on the road for three consecutive games, and won all of three of them, including victories at Pacific-10 Conference stalwarts USC (69-57) and Arizona State (81-52). The latter game was a nationally-televised affair and featured one of the more complete performances of the season for Notre Dame — four players scored in double figures and the Irish shot a blistering 55.6 percent from the field to upend the shocked Sun Devils.
Three nights later at DePaul, Notre Dame was caught off-guard and the Blue Demons handed the Irish their first loss of the season. That defeat would be a mere bump in the road as Notre Dame reeled off three more wins, including a heart-stopping 46-45 victory over eventual WNIT Final Four qualifier Colorado State just two days before Christmas. Senior guard Alicia Ratay was the hero for the Irish, canning two free throws with 9.3 seconds remaining to claim the victory.
Notre Dame closed out the nonconference portion of its schedule on a sour note, sandwiching losses to Tennessee and Purdue around a win at Marquette. Still, with an 8-3 record heading into the BIG EAST Conference season, the Irish had gained a wealth of experience that they hoped would be valuable during league play. However, they had no idea of the trials they would wind up facing in the final two months of the regular season.
January proved to be the most difficult stretch of the year for Notre Dame. The Irish lost four of their first seven conference games, including three consecutive home contests to Miami, Rutgers and Connecticut. A road victory at NCAA Elite Eight participant Villanova (58-56) on Jan. 25 was tempered four days later when Boston College blew open a tight game in the final nine minutes, dropping Notre Dame to 3-4 in BIG EAST action and 11-7 overall. With only six weeks remaining in the regular season, the Irish were forced into a virtual “must-win” situation, needing seven victories in their final nine games to have a realistic chance at reaching the NCAA Tournament.
As if confronting this major obstacle would not be hard enough, Notre Dame saw its roster decimated by injuries, at times resulting in as few as nine healthy players. At this point, the Irish looked inward and called upon a reserve of courage and determination that had been welling up over the last season and a half. Notre Dame answered the challenge with aplomb, winning seven of its last nine regular-season contests, including a thrilling 62-60 last-second win over Seton Hall on Senior Day. As her teammate Ratay had done two months earlier, sophomore forward Katy Flecky was the savior against the Pirates, calmly knocking down two free throws with two seconds left to win the game.
In the BIG EAST Tournament, Notre Dame advanced to the quarterfinals where it met up with Villanova. The Irish led the Wildcats early in the second half, but fell victim to VU’s slower style and wound up being eliminated, 50-39. With a 19-10 record and a fifth-place finish in the BIG EAST, Notre Dame felt it had done more than enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. So, it came as a bit of a surprise to some when the Irish were labeled a “bubble” team by some observers and would up being seeded 11th in the East Region. However, Notre Dame only saw it as another challenge that had to be met head-on.
Facing 22nd-ranked Arizona in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at Manhattan, Kan., the Irish put together a magnificent defensive performance, holding the Wildcats to an opponent season-low 23.3 percent shooting. A veteran of four NCAA Tournaments, Ratay led the way for Notre Dame with 20 points and nine rebounds, as the Irish locked up their 10th consecutive 20-win season and their eighth straight opening-round victory.
An even greater obstacle was looming in the second round, as Notre Dame was matched up with eighth-ranked Kansas State, which owned a 22-game home winning streak. The Wildcats were seen by many as a “darkhorse” contender for the Final Four and buoyed by a home crowd of more than 11,000 fans, KSU was not expected to have much difficulty in dealing with the Irish. Someone forgot to pass that message along to Notre Dame.
Junior guard Le’Tania Severe tossed in a team-high 17 points, pacing four Irish players in double figures as Notre Dame stunned the basketball world with a 59-53 win over Kansas State. The Irish used a patient offense and a vise-like defense to keep the Wildcats confused and frustrated all night long. In fact, Notre Dame held K-State without a field goal for more than 12 minutes spanning between both the first and second halves and did not allow an offensive rebound for all but the final seven seconds of that stretch. The end result was a return trip to the Sweet Sixteen, where the Irish would face their in-state rival, Purdue.
Notre Dame went toe-to-toe with the Boilermakers throughout the first half of their East Regional semifinal, tying the game at 27-27 late in the period on a Ratay jumper. However, Purdue used a 22-4 run in the second half to take the lead for good. Still, the Irish clawed and scrapped during the second half and pulled as close as 12 points twice in the final five minutes. In the end, that wouldn’t be enough, as Notre Dame’s season came to an close with a 66-47 loss. One small consolation for the Irish came when the final ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll was released — Notre Dame was ranked 21st in the nation and was one of four BIG EAST schools to appear in the year-end survey.
Individual honors were plentiful for the Irish this season, led by sophomore forward Jacqueline Batteast, who was a second-team all-BIG EAST selection. The South Bend native ranked among the top 15 in the conference in scoring (13.9 ppg.), rebounding (8.3 rpg.), blocks (1.6 bpg.) and double-doubles (8). Meanwhile, Ratay put her stamp all over the Irish record books, placing in the top 10 in 14 career categories. She leaves Notre Dame as the school’s all-time leader in three-point field goals made (262) and games started (129). In addition, she is the only player in NCAA history to rank among the top 10 in the nation in career three-point percentage (1st, .476) and free throw percentage (6th, .872).
Freshman forward Courtney LaVere also turned in a marquee effort in her first season under the Golden Dome. The Ventura, Calif., native piled up 12.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, and her 398 total points ranked as the fifth-best mark ever amassed by an Irish freshman. She added five double-doubles, with three coming against top-10 opponents, and she was rewarded with a spot on the BIG EAST All-Rookie Team.
Notre Dame’s accomplishments this season have put the Irish in some elite company in a number of different categories. For instance, they are one of just six programs in the nation to have an active streak of 10 consecutive 20-win seasons. Notre Dame also is one of just eight schools to have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen five times in the last seven years. And, with the addition of the nation’s 19th-ranked recruiting class next year, the Irish are one of just three teams in the country to register Top 20 recruiting classes in each of the last seven years (according to Blue Star Index). Furthermore, Notre Dame women’s basketball has evolved into one of the hottest tickets in the country — the Irish have ranked in the top 10 in the nation in home attendance each of the last three years, including an eighth-place ranking this season after averaging 7,132 fans per game.
The road to a berth in the Sweet Sixteen was anything but smooth for Notre Dame in 2002-03. However, as is the case with most good things in life, rewards don’t come easy. The Irish discovered that with teamwork, dedication and an insatiable desire to succeed, glory can be achieved. Next season, nine monogram winners, including four starters, will be back to suit up in the Blue and Gold, and without a doubt, they will call upon the lessons learned in 2002-03 to help them reach an even higher goal — returning Notre Dame to the top of college basketball’s mountain.
— ND —