ND Women's Basketball: Syracuse wanted it more
By: NOAH AMSTADTER
Looking at the reasons behind Syracuse's upset victory over Notre Dame Sunday, one could suggest many explanations.
It could be that Notre Dame was too young: Five freshmen played at least 13 minutes.
Or it could be that the Irish just can't seem to find a way to win at Rutgers' Louis Brown Athletic Center where Notre Dame has historically struggled putting the ball in the net.
But in the end, it was simply a children's game of follow the leader — and the Orangewomen had a leader to follow for the whole 40 minutes. Notre Dame's leader didn't step up until it was too late.
The youth excuse doesn't work here either. Syracuse won Sunday because they had a feisty point guard who set the tone with her fearless attitude, made five of six key free-throws in the final minute and played from the opening whistle to the closing buzzer.
That point guard, the 5-foot-4 Julie McBride, who started in just 10 of 27 games for Syracuse last year, is just a sophomore. But what she lacks in height, she makes up in attitude.
"It came down to who wanted the game more, and it was obvious that we did," McBride said. "We wanted to beat them so bad. We wanted to stay longer. We came out and we were ready. We were focused and we were mentally ready, and that was the key."
Notre Dame's sophomore point guard, Le'Tania Severe — who admittedly didn't gain the game experience McBride had last season — dished out nine assists, but wasn't able to inspire her team the same way her counterpart did.
Syracuse scored 29 points off of Irish turnovers.
"We've struggled with the turnovers all year long, and when you have kind of a rookie point guard it really makes it a little more difficult," McGraw said. "We didn't have that intensity and that focus, early in the game especially and they got a lot of steals in the first half."
Syracuse also used their underdog status as inspiration. While the Irish might have seen the Orangewomen, whom they defeated 71-46 at the Joyce Center earlier this season, as an easy stepping stone on the road to the conference championship game, Syracuse saw Sunday's game as a chance to extend their season and gain a bid for the NCAA Tournament.
And for the team's four seniors, it was a chance to keep their basketball careers going.
"I said in the huddle, `I don't want to go home,'" Syracuse senior guard Jaime James, said. "I don't want to go home, I want to go to the tournament, I want to have postseason play. This was a big game for us, and we had incredible people step up."
James led the Orangewomen in scoring with 23 points.
They also had a coach that realized that her team might not have had the most talent on the court Sunday, but wouldn't let the game be decided before tip-off.
"I told them that you're guaranteed when you first arrive 40 minutes. You have to play 40 out of 40," Syracuse head coach Marianna Freeman said. "On this given night, we ended up being the team that won the game. It's not always the best team that wins, it's the team that plays the best. On this night, we played the best."
The No. 7-ranked team played above their heads, while the No. 2-ranked Irish did not. And head coach Muffet McGraw was quick to point out exactly why.
"We're a young team without great leadership and I think that when you come out, you're just trying to find your way, and you're waiting for somebody to step up and show you the way," McGraw said. "And really in the first half, nobody stepped up and showed us the way."
But in the second half, as the Irish saw an 18-point deficit and the seal closing on the envelope holding their early plane ticket home, that leader showed up.
Her name? Alicia Ratay.
The junior shooting guard, a first-team All Big East selection, decided to take over late in the second half, scoring 17 of her team's final 21 points in the final four minutes to pull the Irish within two at one time.
"In the second half, when we had to score we found a way to score," Ratay said. "You do whatever you can to put up a shot."
Ratay, who passed up shots because she wasn't open in the opening 20 minutes, walked onto the court and huddled her teammates together during those final four minutes. The normally quiet Ratay stepped up and became not just a leader by example but a vocal leader.
And she took every shot she could, regardless of whether or not she was open.
With hands flying in her face and the whole Syracuse team knowing who was getting the ball, Ratay sank three 3-pointers while converting two more three-point plays.
Ratay did the same thing two years ago against Rutgers in the Big East semifinal and the Irish came back to win in overtime.
Now, Ratay must lead like that for the entire 40 minutes. Notre Dame's other standout player, freshman forward Jackie Batteast, played just 13 minutes Sunday while healing from a knee injury and didn't score a point.
With their second-place Big East finish during the regular season and impressive wins over ranked Boston College and Virginia Tech teams, the team wearing the same uniforms as last year's national champions are still a shoe-in for the NCAA Tournament. Heck, they might even get a top-eight seed in their bracket.
But if the Irish are going to get past their first opponent, they have to come in with the same attitude as their opponent. Syracuse knew that a loss meant the end of the season, for some players the end of their careers. And they didn't want to see that happen.
Whoever Notre Dame plays in the NCAA's in mid-March is going to come in with the same attitude. The Irish must know that it's win or go home and come to really, really detest South Bend.
To get there, the Irish need a leader. And as she proved in the closing minutes Sunday, they have one in Ratay. That same leader needs to show up for 40 minutes come tournament time. If she does, this team, with a healthy Batteast, could surprise some and advance to the Sweet 16.
But if that leader doesn't appear, students could return from spring break to find The Observer's back page telling the story of another upset by a team with nothing to lose and a trip home from the dance before the music even started.
Contact Noah Amstadter at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily The Observer.
All Sports Stories for Monday, March 4, 2002