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McGraw: 'The team I thought we could be'

3/30/2003

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's trip to the round of 16 was anything but routine.

These Irish aren't the veteran team that lost just two games and
went on to win the NCAA title two years ago. Instead, this is an
overachieving bunch is enjoying their late-season success and
playing to the preseason expectations of their coach.

The only starter left from the 2001 title team is guard Alicia
Ratay. The other holdovers are Le'Tania Severe, a little-used
player that season, and walk-on Karen Swanson.

The rest of the players on this Notre Dame team were either high
school recruits or prep players when Ruth Riley led the Irish to
the national title against Purdue -- Sunday's opponent in the East
Regional semifinal in Dayton, Ohio.

This run, which has the Irish in the round of 16 for the fifth
time in seven years, has been more enjoyable, Ratay said.

"Being the underdog, it's really exciting to beat a No. 3 seed
on their home court,'' she said.

That victory came against Kansas State, where the Irish ended
the Wildcats' 22-game home winning streak.

After losing five of six games to ranked team's this season, the
Irish have beaten No. 22 Arizona and No. 8 Kansas State in
consecutive games.

"This year differs tremendously from what we've been through
the past couple of years because this team that is overachieving
tremendously, and in our minds, not as big an upset as everyone
else is thinking,'' coach Muffet McGraw said.

"I think it's more exciting in the end when you win. Instead of
being relieved that you won, now we're excited about winning as the
underdog.''

Only six teams seeded 11th or lower have advanced to the round
of 16. None has ever won in that round. The only double-digit seed
to make it past the round was 10th-seeded Lamar, which beat
sixth-seeded Arkansas 91-75 in 1991.

This type of run by the Irish appeared unlikely in January.
Notre Dame was ranked as high as eighth after a win at Arizona
State in early December.

After a 77-61 loss to Tennessee in Indianapolis, the Irish went
4-6 through the end of January. That streak included an
embarrassing 71-54 loss to Purdue that led McGraw to apologize to
fans for the team's lack of effort.

It also led to a tense postgame news conference following a
64-61 loss to Rutgers, Notre Dame's third straight home loss.
McGraw yelled about the players losing their discipline, and
players exited through one door and McGraw left through another.

"We went through bigger growing pains than we anticipated,''
McGraw said. "I don't think I handled it well. I think had I been
a little bit calmer, a little bit more relaxed -- I had trouble with
the expectations being so high and reality being so low.''

That combination has helped make the team's recent success that
much more enjoyable.

"This is the team I thought we could be all throughout the
year,'' McGraw said. "We're the underdog. I think it's easier on
us.''