Big East tourney provides test for McGraw's squad
By KERRY SMITH
Assistant Sports Editor
After Notre Dame's regular season loss to top-ranked Connecticut, college basketball analysts remarked that the No. 6 squad in the nation had stubbed its toe.
But ask any Irish player and they'll tell you it hurt more than that.
That loss will be on the minds of every Irish player as she steps on the court at Gampel Pavilion during the Big East tournament in Storrs, Conn. this weekend.
With Connecticut occupying the top spot in the bracket and Notre Dame seeded second, the two teams are destined to meet in the finals.
While the Huskies walked away with the regular season Big East title, the Irish aren't about to let them take the tournament crown as well.
"We're excited for the tournament and this team has got a lot of heart," senior guard Danielle Green said. "We know we can make it to the finals and can compete with Connecticut."
The Irish, who finished with only one conference loss during a 24-3 regular season, matched Connecticut for the better part of the game, but stumbled in the opening and closing minutes, dropping an 18-point decision to the Huskies.
The Irish don't plan to make the same mistakes twice.
"That is the sort of game where you can't spot them eight points like we did," Green said. "We played well in the middle, but we know the beginning and end will be key for us."
As much as they are anticipating a rematch with the Huskies, the Irish have learned the importance of not looking past the next game on their schedule. With near losses to cellar-dwelling teams in the Big East during the regular season because of looking forward on the schedule, the Irish aren't focusing on the Huskies until they make it to the finals Tuesday night.
"We have to have the one-game-at-a-time mentality," said Green. "We can't just look forward to Connecticut and forget about the other rounds of the tournament."
The road to meet the Huskies in the finals, while short, is not easy.
The Irish earned a bye in the tournament's first round on Saturday and will take to the court Sunday to face off against the winner of the Miami-Seton Hall opening-round game.
The Irish met both teams in the regular season and know what to expect. The Irish downed Miami twice in the regular season.
Playing in Coral Gables, Fla., the Irish took home a 76-54 victory and then beat the Hurricanes in a rematch at the Joyce Center 83-68.
Seton Hall also posed little threat to Notre Dame early in the season, as the Irish handed the Pirates a 80-52 loss.
But those games were played under different circumstances with not as much on the line. With the NCAA tournament just around the corner, mediocre Big East teams now have more incentive to take down the Irish in the Big East tournament to gain a last-minute edge with the NCAA tournament selection committee.
If the Irish make it past the first round, they will still face a challenge in probable opponent Rutgers — a team that gave them all they could handle in regular season play.
"It's hard preparing for the tournament because we won't know who we are going to face," Green said. "But we played Miami two times and won and beat Seton Hall early in the season, so we are just going to stick to our game plan."
That game plan consists of tight defense and balanced play under the basket and behind the arc. Entering into the tournament, junior center Ruth Riley — the go-to player for the Irish — is averaging just over 17 points in conference action. Riley has struggled this season with fouls — the All-American candidate will need to stay out of foul trouble for the Irish to make a serious run at the title.
Freshman shooting guard Alicia Ratay is nipping at Riley's heels, averaging almost 15 points an outing. Not only has Ratay's point production been key for the Irish, the timing of her shots has been the most effective part of her game. Ratay has pulled the Irish out of scrapes all season with her deadly three-point shot.
Irish head coach Muffet McGraw will also be looking for a strong outing by point guard Niele Ivey. The team's vocal leader on the court, Ivey plays a pivotal role in the Irish offense. The senior leads the Irish in steals and assists.
Green will also play a major role in the tournament. Enjoying an outstanding second half of the season, Green is the third-leading scorer for the Irish and has proved to be a menace to opponents on the fast-break.
But, with the possibility of three games in three days, the Irish will need more than stellar performances by their starters to earn the title. Notre Dame's bench will be a crucial factor this week.
"The bench is going to be key," said Green. "Every single player has to be focused and prepared to find someway to contribute."
After spending a record six weeks at the No. 5 spot in the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls, the Irish fell to sixth after their loss top Connecticut. The Irish are looking at the Big East Tournament as a way to gain some ground before the NCAA tournament and bolster their confidence before the big dance. The Irish know the Big East title is just within their reach and don't plan on leaving Connecticut empty-handed again this season.
All Sports Stories for Friday, March 3, 2000