Women surprise country with Tournament upsets
By JOE HETTLER
All the trials and tribulations Irish faced during the 2002-03 season finally paid off when the games counted the most.
Left for dead after an up-and-down regular season, Notre Dame upset No. 6 Arizona then shocked No. 3 Kansas State at home in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament to advance to its fifth Sweet Sixteen in the last seven years.
The loss snapped Kansas State's 22-game home winning streak and sent Notre Dame to Dayton, Ohio where they lost to No. 2 Purdue, 66-47.
But reaching the Sweet Sixteen seemed nearly impossible after the kind of season Notre Dame endured.
Irish coach Muffet McGraw played five sophomores and two freshmen with regularity throughout the season and had a player quit the team midseason. That lack of experience and a difficult schedule made this season a trying one for McGraw and her team.
The Irish opened the year winning seven of their first eight games, before being blown out by Tennessee in Knoxville, 77-61, Dec. 28. The late-December loss sent the Irish into a rough month of January where the Irish lost all four of their home games, including a 72-53 defeat to eventual national champion Connecticut. In all, Notre Dame went just 3-5 in January and hit rock bottom Jan. 4 when the team fell to Purdue on national television 71-54.
"The Purdue game was the lowest point of our season," McGraw said weeks later.
But Notre Dame bounced back in February to collect a pair of victories over Big East foes, West Virginia and Georgetown, before falling to a tough Virginia Tech team on the road. The Irish continued their solid play by winning five of their last six Big East games to finish the regular season at 19-10. The NCAA selection committee rewarded the team with an 11-seed for the tournament and a trip to Kansas State to face Arizona and either host Kansas State or Harvard.
The Irish raced past unsuspecting Arizona thanks to the shooting of senior guard Alicia Ratay. Ratay, who had one of the most illustrious careers in Irish womens basketball history, scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds, on a night when neither team could make shots, to lift Notre Dame to a 59-47 victory. Notre Dame held Arizona to a mere 22.3 field goal percentage for the game.
Things didn't get any easier for the Irish in their second round matchup against the purple-clad Wildcats. Kansas State had lost just four games all season, none at home and had the potential to advance to deep into the tournament. Notre Dame made sure that didn't happen with, arguably, the biggest upset of the 2003 tournament.
Behind another stellar defensive performance that held Kansas State without a field goal for more than 12 minutes in the second half, 17 points from junior guard Le'Tania Severe and clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch from freshmen Megan Duffy and Courtney LaVere, Notre Dame ended the Wildcats season, 59-53.
"Coming into the game, I thought we got off to a great start," McGraw said after the win. "We tried to take the crowd out of the game early on and tried to limit their 3s. I thought we did a really good job of that in the first half. I was so pleased with our defense. I thought that's how we won the game, a great defensive effort."
After the season, forward Jacqueline Batteast wasnamed second-team All-Big East averaging 13.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest.
LaVere made the freshman All-American team and Ratay was selected as a finalist for the National Scholar-Athlete of the Year as well.
Ratay ended the year hitting 46.3 percent of her 3-point attempts (50-for-108) and scored 12.1 points and nearly five rebounds per game. She ended her Notre Dame career with the highest 3-point shooting percentage in womens college basketball history, connecting on 47.6 percent of her 3-pointers.
All Sports Stories for Friday, July 11, 2003