Defending champs start new season with three new starters
By NOAH AMSTADTER
When the 2001-02 installment of the Notre Dame women's basketball program put on their uniforms for media day and took the Joyce Center floor together for the first time last Thursday, they hardly resembled the squad that brought home the NCAA championship last April.
Missing was the imposing figure of Naismith Award winner Ruth Riley. Also graduated and missing were starters Kelley Siemon and Niele Ivey, as well as senior leaders Imani Dunbar and Meaghan Leahy.
In their place, the six freshmen making up the women's basketball class of 2005 donned the gold for the first time. Forwards Teresa Borton, Jackie Batteast, Katie Flecky, Kelsey Wicks and guards Allison Bustamante and Jill Krause bring in a new crop of talent. And a new set of expectations.
The Irish were predicted to be the 19th-best team in the country according to Athlon Sports, 20th-best according to Women's Basketball Journal. In fact, Lindy's didn't have the Irish ranked at all. For Irish head coach Muffet McGraw, the goals are still the same.
"We want to get a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament and we want to host a game in the NCAA Tournament," McGraw said. "I think we have the same goals this year. Maybe instead of a No. 1 seed, maybe we're the 16th seed, the 16th team to get the home court. It doesn't really matter, our goal is to get that home court game."
Leading the way for the Irish will be two veterans. Forward Ericka Haney, the lone senior on the team, averaged a career-best 11 points per contest last season. This season, Haney will be counted on to provide leadership as well as solid offense and rebounding.
"That's going to be a real task for Ericka to lead a team with six freshman and two sophomores,"McGraw said. "It's going to be a challenge for her but it's one I think she's really looking forward to."
Haney, who learned to lead watching Ivey the past two seasons, appeared confident as she described her role on the team.
"One of the most important things for me is to be a leader on this team and to show the younger people what it takes to get to where we were last year,"Haney said. "I think that'll be my biggest role on the court, to show more than tell people what to do."
Haney's leadership should prove crucial as the Irish adapt to a new, faster-moving offense. The slow, half-court game in which the Irish exploited Riley's ability to score around the basket and create shots for others is now history. This year's team will run and shoot, taking advantage of the skills of junior Alicia Ratay, the team's new go-to player.
"She is the person that we want to go to in situations where we really need to score,"McGraw said of the 6-1 Ratay, who set the NCAA record for 3-point percentage last season. "She's willing to accept that role and because of that she has the respect of the whole team."
The defensive pressure on Ratay will be greater than ever before, as teams no longer have to put to defenders on the nation's best center.
"I don't expect to get as many open shots as I did last year,"Ratay said. "Ruth got triple-teamed, she was a great passer."
McGraw noted that Ratay spent the summer working out in the weight room and playing pickup games against male players to prepare for the season.
One of the unanswered questions for the Irish is how the team will sort out its point guard position. Ivey played nearly 40 minutes at the point every game last year, not leaving until the game was well in hand.
Sophomore Le'Tania Severe is expected to eventually take over the position, but classmate Jeneka Joyce exhibited strong ball-handling skills, turning the ball over only 14 times in 403 minutes.
"[Joyce is] just so smart with the ball and has such a good head for the game,"McGraw said. "Le'Tania is not quite as poised right now but certainly has improved tremendously. I think both of them will see some time at the point. It will eventually be Le'Tania's job but I think Jeneka will kind of help her get started."
Joyce was even more confident in Severe's abilities.
"I think Le'Tania is going to be very good at the point,"Joyce said. "Nobody's seen her play because she's been hurt. She's in very good shape now. She had the whole off-season working on her game."
In the front-court, junior Amanda Barksdale is expected to take Riley's starting spot at center. Barksdale was the team's Most Improved Player last season, ranking third in the Big East with 1.7 blocked shots per game despite averaging only 8.2 minutes on the court per contest.
Freshmen Flecky and Batteast compete for the power forward spot vacated by Siemon. Batteast, a South Bend native, adds shooting skills and eventually could replace Haney at the No. 3 spot. But right now, she will contribute on the boards.
"I think the thing we're looking from her the most probably is rebounding,"McGraw said. "That's her greatest strength; it's our biggest weakness. That's going to be her role initially is to really help us out on the boards."
Flecky, from Colorado, adds a shooting touch to a fast game that has been compared to Siemon's.
"She can step outside and play in the post," McGraw said. "She's somebody that's very aggressive going to the basket. She's a good rebounder."
The Irish open with a preseason game on Nov. 6 against the Ohio Girl's Basketball Magazine team at the Joyce Center.
All Sports Stories for Friday, October 12, 2001