Irish leader ends career where she started
By NOAH AMSTADTER
Gary Glasscock heard about a child prodigy.
The buzz within St. Louis girls' basketball in the early '90s concerned a little girl from the inner-city. Glasscock, the girls' basketball coach at St. Louis' Cor Jesu Academy, listened to rumors of a sixth-grader who was sinking half-court shots on a regular basis.
Her name: Niele Ivey.
Tonight, the grown-up prodigy returns to St. Louis as the starting point guard on a 32-2 Notre Dame team that takes on Connecticut at 9 p.m. in the Women's Final Four semifinals.
"It's a great feeling to know that I'm going home," Ivey said. "It's something that I thought about at the beginning of the year. That's where all my family and support is."
Glasscock remembers a middle-school Ivey not much different from the first-team All-Big East guard Notre Dame fans are familiar with.
"She played on just an average team with average girls and she got all of them involved in the game just as she has done at Notre Dame and here at Cor Jesu," Glasscock said.
When Ivey finally reached eighth grade and had to pick where to spend her high school years, the choice was an easy one. She was raised Catholic, attended Catholic grammar schools and her family was impressed by what Cor Jesu had to offer. Glasscock didn't even have to recruit her.
"It was a very spirited high school," Ivey said. "It was run by the Sacred Heart nuns so there were a lot of Christian values. It's kind of a family [atmosphere]."
If Cor Jesu was a family, Ivey quickly became the favorite daughter. As the Chargers bolted to a 31-0 record and the Missouri Class 4A state championship, Ivey led the team — a team with one player taller than the 5-foot-8 Ivey — with averages of 18.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and five steals. As a senior, Ivey improved her averages to 24 points and eight rebounds per contest.
During her junior year championship run, Irish coach Muffet McGraw first watch Ivey play. The Notre Dame head coach attended the Missouri Class 4A girls' basketball playoffs. The Chargers were on the court, led by their fiesty point guard.
"The thing that really drew me to her was her attitude and demeanor on the court," McGraw said. "She's such a great leader. She was inspirational to her team. She was always talking and getting them together."
The contest was close — every shot essential to assure victory. Ivey continued driving to the basket. Cor Jesu won the game, en route to a Class 4A state championship. Ivey hit a perfect 13 of 13 free-throw attempts down the stretch to ice the win.
"She was highly motivated, worked extremely hard," McGraw said. "She was much more defense-oriented in high school than she was a shooter. I just really was just looking for somebody that could lead our team in that kind of way and she fit it perfectly."
The Irish coach wasn't going to let this one get away.
McGraw and her recruiting partner, Notre Dame assistant Carol Owens, kept their eyes on the guard throughout the summer.
Although NCAA rules forbade the duo from actually speaking with the rising high school junior, the duo traveled everywhere from small towns in Missouri to pickup games at the Boys and Girls Club of St. Louis to watch Ivey play.
"We tried to go everywhere she was," Owens said. "Muffet from the start knew that she was going to be a very special player."
When Ivey reached her senior year and Notre Dame was able to make contact, the Ivey family and the Notre Dame family quickly gelled into one.
"I really bonded with Niele immediately on the phone," Owens said. "Cor Jesu is similar in schools and what she was looking for."
In the end, it was Ivey's mother, Theresa, that sealed the decision.
"Muffet and I came on the home visit," Owens said. "Niele surprisingly was quiet at the time. She was very quiet until she got to know us. Her mom said she knew that that's definitely the place and the people she wanted her."
Mrs. Ivey, who works for a gourmet foods company, even cooked for the two coaches.
"Her mom's a great person, and a great cook," Owens said. "We had pound cake. I could have had like three pieces."
But Ivey's "March to the Arch" has not come without a few bumps in the road.
The fifth-year senior was granted an extra year of eligibility after a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee her freshman season in 1996-97 limited her to five games.
The 1996 USA Today Missouri Player of the Year came back to start in 19 of her 31 appearances in 1997-98. The next season, she solidified her starting role and earned third-team All-Big East recognition after averaging a career-best 13.2 points to go along with a conference-best 44.8 percent from behind the 3-point arc. Then disaster struck — again.
Notre Dame was 24-4 on the year, taking on conference-rival Rutgers in the Big East Tournament semifinals. With 14 minutes remaining, Ivey went down. It was her ACL again, only this time she tore her left.
The rehabilitation was once again long and grueling. But six months after the injury, Ivey was back on the court. Rather than feeling sorry for herself, Ivey recognizes the positives that have come out of her two ordeals.
"I gained a lot of determination and motivation from the injuries," Ivey said. "It's made me realize that basketball isn't the only thing in my life. I became closer to my family. A lot of special people have come into my life because of it. I think it's a blessing in disguise."
After the second injury, Ivey once again came back stronger than ever. She averaged 11.2 points and six assists per game in 1999-2000, moving up to second-team All-Big East. The Irish advanced to the Sweet 16.
This season Ivey served as a team captain, increased her scoring average to 11.8 points and upped her assist average to seven per contest. She is taking the Irish to their second Final Four ever, their first since 1997, the year of Ivey's first injury.
The 23-year-old's efforts earned her the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, an honor presented to the nation's top female senior player standing 5-foot-8 or under.
"Any kind of accolades or awards I receive I get excited about the hard work I put in to basketball," Ivey said. "To get recognition is a great feeling."
While many fans focus on the efforts of All-American center Ruth Riley, Irish assistant coach Coquese Washington says Ivey is invaluable to the team's success.
"Niele's a natural leader. She's definitely the heart and soul of this team," Washington said. "Everybody feeds off of Niele. I think this team as a whole just plays a lot more relaxed a lot more loose and they're able to make shots and plays."
While Ivey hasn't starred in St. Louis since 1996, she is far from forgotten. Cor Jesu designated Tuesday "Niele Ivey Day" at the all girls, Catholic high school. Blue paper jerseys adorned with Ivey's number "33" line the center hallway of the building. Paper shoes — 33 of them, of course — list Ivey's various accomplishments and honors, both prep and collegiate.
The shoes follow a large blue "Road to the Final Four" in the school's gymnasium. Each step on the road represents a Notre Dame game this season.
Ivey's final shoe places her at the end of that road — in St. Louis for the Final Four.
Right back where she started.
All Sports Stories for Friday, March 30, 2001