by Greg Touney
It’s a simple equation, really, for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.
A schedule that features 13 games against 12 teams who qualified for the 2003 NCAA Tournament – including games against the two tournament finalists – plus competing on a team stacked with eight experienced players equals a fierce struggle for playing time.
For the three Irish freshmen this year – Susie Powers, Breona Gray and Crystal Erwin – this equation has proven true many times this season. While the trio came into the season ranked 19th as a recruiting class by Blue Star Index, solid minutes have occasionally come few and far between. Despite this, the three have shown rapid signs of improvement throughout the season and have kept a positive outlook on their place on the Irish squad.
“It’s hard because you go in leaving a bigger role in high school and entering college in a smaller role,” Powers said.
“(When we enter the game) we’re going to go in for specific reasons. We have to know to accept minor roles and be content with that.”
Bolstering the team-first concept is the fact that each of the three cites her highlight of the season as the Jan. 13 matchup against defending national champion Connecticut. In front of a jam-packed Joyce Center, Notre Dame knocked off the No. 4 ranked Huskies, 66-51.
Crystal Erwin was a 2003 McDonald’s All-American.
Erwin best summed up the three freshmen’s feelings on being part of the upset.
“Even though we didn’t play that much and even though we weren’t on the court at times, we felt like we were,” she said.
Adjusting to the collegiate level and to Big East play has been a definite leap, but the freshmen have managed to handle it so far.
“The speed of the game is much different, and the girls are much stronger. I pretty much expected it to be the way it is though,” Erwin adds.
A 2003 McDonald’s All-American who averaged 22.3 points and 13.4 rebounds at St. Paul (Calif.) High School, Erwin has been the lone Irish freshman to see action in every one of the team’s 21 games. In Notre Dame’s second exhibition game against Team Concept, Erwin showed her promise by tallying a near-double-double, with 9 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes played. Against Dayton on Dec. 13, Erwin provided a pleasant spark off the bench with a career- and game-high 13 points in a 78-41 rout.
Erwin’s scoring ability, however, has been just a bonus.
“I felt like my role (coming into the season) was to be a rebounder and to be physical,” she said. “That’s been my whole mindset.”
Despite occasionally running into foul trouble, the 6-2 forward has established a physical presence down low both in games and in practice, while averaging 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
Erwin has entered college ball with impressive credentials as well as high expectations. Before the start of the season, she was named as the Big East Co-Freshman of the Year. However, Erwin feels no added weight on her shoulders.
“I’m used to having pressure, and this is good pressure,” she explains. “I consider it an honor.”
Gray, a four-time all-state selection at Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High School, is arguably the best athlete on the Notre Dame squad. She boasts the team’s best vertical leap and captured the Nevada state championship in the 400 meter dash as a junior.
The 5-9 Gray holds the honor of leading the Notre Dame freshmen in minutes played. The lightning-quick guard has been providing a defensive lift for the team off the bench.
“My role has been to play defense and to contain people,” she explains.
One of her top performances occurred in Notre Dame’s 72-64 non-conference win over Marquette. Gray tallied 19 minutes and contributed six rebounds, two points and a steal to the Irish total.
As her minutes have gradually increased over the season, Gray has made the necessary adjustments to the college game.
“The game is very mental. You have to know what to do in tough situations. We’re all getting better, and we’re all more relaxed and more comfortable,” she says. “Everyone has nerves, but it’s alright once you get used to it.”
Powers brings the most championship experience to the plate. An integral member of the Highlands Ranch (Colo.) High School team that won three consecutive state titles from 2000-02, Powers had the advantage of playing alongside others who have also made the jump to college basketball, most notably Notre Dame junior Katy Flecky and two Connecticut cagers, sophomore forward Ann Strother and freshman center Liz Sherwood, the other Big East Co-Freshman of the Year.
Powers credits her high school experience with getting her ready for the college hoops scene.
“It definitely prepared me for college because we got to go to bigger tournaments and play at a high level.”
Susie Powers was a member of the Highlands Ranch (Colo.) High School team that won three consecutive state titles from 2000-02.
The 5-11 guard should help boost the team’s assist-to-turnover ratio with her solid ball-handling and sure passing. Reaching her season-high in minutes with 22 against Dayton, Powers tallied four rebounds and three steals.
For the three freshmen, more games have meant more chances to gel as a unit. During last week’s 66-52 victory over Georgetown, the Joyce Center crowd got a glimpse of the future. Gray contributed a slashing drive and jumper to put the Irish up 30-21 as the first half winded down to a halt. Erwin added four points, as well as a beautiful pass from the foul line to a wide-open Courtney LaVere under the basket. LaVere converted as the Irish pulled away from the Hoyas with a 9-0 second half run. Later, Powers and Erwin teamed up for the final two points of the game as all three freshmen saw time on the court together at once.
As the season heats up and nears its end, the freshmen have noticed marked improvement in their games, as Breona Gray noted after the Georgetown victory.
“We know it’s getting tougher, but I think that every day we’re getting better.”