Raiders' run puts stunning end to Irish title hopes
By KERRY SMITH
Every tournament has its upsets, but few are more surprising than the 69-65 win Texas Tech pulled out against Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament in Memphis Saturday.
It wasn't the difference in the seedings that made Notre Dame's loss seem at first incomprehensible to Irish fans — the Irish were a No. 2 seed and the Raiders were third.
Before the game tipped off, it was billed as either team's game to win, but after the Irish scored the first 17 points of the contest and held the Raiders scoreless for the first seven minutes, things looked bleak for Raiders head coach Marsha Sharp and her squad.
But as quickly as the Irish had poured in the baskets, the 27-5 team went dry and the Raiders shot their way back into the game, running off 17 unanswered points of their own to tie the game.
"We were just trying to keep focused [when we were down by 17]," said Texas Tech center Planette Pierson. "We kept playing hard and thinking we were going to be okay — we were getting a lot of shots but they just weren't falling."
Pierson sparked the Raiders comeback with an open look at the basket on a fast break with less than 14 minutes remaining in the first half. Teammates Kietha Dickerson and Amber Tarr followed her lead and cut the Irish edge to 10 with another lay-up and a three-pointer in less than a minute, giving the Raiders the emotional edge they needed to get out of their slump.
Texas Tech helped its cause by foiling several Irish trips down the court with its stifling defensive press.
"We really felt like we needed to press a little bit early," Sharp said. "We were having so much trouble creating offense and we were looking for any way we could to make the game more up tempo to score a few easy buckets."
The Raiders also had some help to get them back in the game — the familiar ghosts in Notre Dame's closet came back to haunt the Irish. Turnovers and foul trouble debilitated the squad, allowing the Raiders to hang with the Irish before taking the lead for good with less than eight minutes remaining.
"Texas Tech didn't shoot the ball extremely well, but they seemed to when they really needed to," said Irish head coach Muffet McGraw. "I thought that a number of their players stepped up and played extremely well. They just had a great balanced team effort."
Despite the Texas Tech run, the Irish finished the first half with a 28-23 edge, but it wasn't enough, as the Raiders refused to die.
Irish center Ruth Riley scored a team-high 19 points, but the Raiders forced the All-American to foul out in the second half, leaving a gaping offensive hole when the Irish needed it most.
"Credit their defense," McGraw said. "They played hard they handled the pressure and I thought the difference in the game was when Ruth Riley was on the floor and when she was not on the floor — I think we're two different teams."
The silencing of Riley provided an opportunity for the Irish backcourt to step up, but it didn't.
Guards Niele Ivey and Alicia Ratay went a combined 2-for-16 from the field, scoring just nine points total.
"We obviously need [Ratay] to score and I thought she played just like a freshman tonight," McGraw said. "She didn't seem to have the confidence that she normally has."
The Irish had a chance get a lead on the Raiders with 3:31 left, when forward Ericka Haney hit a seven-foot jumper to bring the score to 57-56, but the Irish never could get on top.
Perfect execution of offense when it counted gave the Raiders a five-point lead with 23 seconds left, and the Raiders held on to advance to the Elite Eight of the tournament.
"I think at this time of year it just comes down to making plays," Sharp said. "And we were just fortunate to make enough plays in the second half to get ourselves a chance to win."
Forward Aleah Johnson paced the Raiders with 18 points, leading four Texas Tech players scoring in double-digits.
Suiting up for the last time in Irish uniforms, Notre Dame seniors Danielle Green and Julie Henderson scored 15 and 10 points respectively.
Notre Dame's loss ends a season of many successes — the Irish held the nation's longest winning streak for most of the year and continued their undefeated record at the Joyce Center while peaking at No. 5 in national polls.
All Sports Stories for Monday, March 27, 2000