Irish survive home scare from Panthers
By TIM CASEY
They filed out of the Joyce Center court with a collective look of disgust on their faces. If you just arrived, you would have thought the wom-en's basketball team had lost to Pittsburgh.
There was no indication, other than on the scoreboard, that Notre Dame (20-2, 11-0 Big East) had won its 16th straight game — a school record.
"It was the most embarrassing performance of the season," Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said after her team's 81-74 victory. "I was really glad no one from the NCAA selection committee was here tonight."
What the representatives would have seen was a team struggling to make short jump shots, — even layups — in the first half. A team that turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 27 times. A team that saw a 22-point lead with 4:18 left in the game dwindle to six in less than four minutes.
"I'd like to apologize to our fans and anyone who had to sit through that game," McGraw said, "because we didn't play to our abilities."
The Irish started the game with an 11-2 advantage in the first five minutes behind Alicia Ratay's two 3-pointers. Notre Dame cooled off quickly though, as they managed to hit only 41 percent of their first half attempts.
"Missing shots like that makes you frustrated," center Ruth Riley said. "We should have been making those shots. I think a lot of people stopped looking for their shots after they missed a few-that hurt us."
Notre Dame expanded the lead to 13 but Pittsburgh's Amanda Wittenmyer scored nine points in the last two minutes of the half to cut the Irish margin to 33-27.
About the only positive for the Irish in the first half was Ratay. The 5-foot-11 forward, the Big East's co-Rookie of the Week, connected on 5 of 9 field goals, including four from 3-point range to lead the Irish with 14 points at intermission.
"That was the only reason we were winning at halftime," McGraw said, referring to Ratay's shooting.
At halftime, McGraw made some adjustments, including implementing a full-court press and emphasizing getting the ball to her post players.
Riley was the main recipient of the new strategy. The 6-foot-5 All-American scored 12 of the team's first 19 points of the half, as the Irish led 54-43 at the 12:30 mark.
"I thought midway through the second half we started playing our game," McGraw said. "We went into Ruth and I thought she responded well and came up big."
At the 8:39 mark of the half, Danielle Green stepped to the line and calmly sank one of her free throws, for her 1,000th career point. She became the 16th player in Irish history to achieve the feat.
"That was a great thing for Danielle," McGraw said. "She's had a tremendous year and especially lately. She's played so well in the last three or four weeks. She's showing a lot of leadership and doing a great job for us."
After Kelley Siemon scored nine points in less than four minutes, the Irish led 73-51 with 4:18 remaining.
Then came a four-minute stretch that McGraw would like to forget.
Pittsburgh's pressure defense, their hot shooting and Notre Dame's poor bench play all added up to a wild finish.
It started with a Wittenmyer shot from the post, as the Panthers scored eight straight. Notre Dame was still up by 15 with two minutes left, but Michelle Katkowski, Laine Selwyn and Brooke Stewart scored eleven points in less than a minute.
A Stewart three-pointer from the left corner with 18 seconds left narrowed the lead to 80-74. After a turnover, Selwyn had an open three from the top of the key. She missed. Green hit one of two free throws to seal the victory.
"We were very tentative at that point," McGraw said of the final four minutes. "I think that's why teams think they can press us because they watch the ends of our game. From now on we're just not going to sub at that point which is unfortunate."
After giving her players a couple days off to rest prior to last night's game, McGraw has reassessed her thinking.
"That's the last time we'll take any extra days off," McGraw said.
"I can't wait to get to practice [today]. I think we've got a lot of great ideas about how we can fix what happened tonight," she said. "I think we'll bring our track shoes tomorrow and get the kinks out that way."
All Sports Stories for Thursday, February 10, 2000