Irish lose leader, return bulk of talent
INDIANAPOLIS -- It began with an unconvincing performance from players who seemed unsteady on the stage. It turned around on the strength of collective toughness and individual brilliance from a sophomore superstar-in-the-making. And it slipped away in the end, a final bit of disappointment as the necessary foil in a show for the ages.
In one heck of a basketball game Tuesday night, Notre Dame lived out every part of its season.
But if a 76-70 loss to Texas A&M in the national championship game revealed the imperfections of a team built as much for the future as the present, it also revealed something about the toughness that got the Irish here in the first place.
Unfazed by playing its NCAA tournament first-round game on the road against Utah, an 0-20 all-time record against regional final opponent Tennessee and three losses this season against semifinal opponent Connecticut, Notre Dame looked unsure of itself in the opening minutes against the Aggies. The Irish turned the ball over twice in the opening minute and four times in the first 160 seconds, and trailed by 12 points before the first half was even halfway over.
It was an unconvincing start to the game from a team that didn't win itself much championship support with an unconvincing start to the season, losing at home against UCLA and at Kentucky in the span of three days in November before losing a third marquee game at Baylor on the first day of December. The Fighting Irish beat the Morehead States and Valparaisos of the world, but they didn't look like a team capable of reaching Indianapolis.
At least not until the middle of the season, when they survived with their backs against the wall against Gonzaga and rode that momentum through conference play and the postseason.
"The first half of the season, we proved why we weren't a championship team -- we were immature, we didn't finish games, we didn't play for 40 minutes," junior guard Natalie Novosel said in an understandably morose locker room Tuesday night. "But the Big East season came along, and we just matured. We gained a lot of experience; the freshmen grew up some. I think as a team we just became one unit, and that's what really was the difference. And we elevated our play to another level, and we knew the potential for this team was sky high."
It was much the same story against the Aggies. Down by as many as 13 points on several occasions in the first half, the Irish gradually began to look capable of winning a championship. Skylar Diggins gained control of the tempo against the pressure provided by Sydney Carter and Sydney Colson, getting in the lane and punishing defenders eager to help by dropping the ball down to Devereaux Peters. By the time halftime arrived, the Fighting Irish had a 35-33 lead, a lead that grew to seven points early in the second half in front of a noticeably pro-green crowd at Conseco Fieldhouse.
But after beating teams in the previous rounds that either didn't have an elite post presence or saw what they had saddled with foul trouble, Notre Dame ran into a roadblock, almost literally, in Texas A&M's Danielle Adams. Taking up residence on the blocks, Adams piled up 22 of her 30 points in the second half, including 10 in a row at one point.
"We did not find an answer for her," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "We had a plan, and we just weren't able to stop her. We thought that was going be a tough matchup for Becca [Bruszewski]. Devereaux [Peters] tried to guard her a little bit, but then the foul trouble was a problem. Natalie Achonwa tried to guard her, and then she got into foul trouble. She did a really good job of getting us in foul trouble.
"She's just a great player. She's got a big body; we couldn't get around her. I thought she really hurt us down the stretch. I thought we did OK for a while, but then in the last seven or eight minutes, they just seemed like they were going to go in to her. And if she didn't get it, she was going to rebound and put it back in."
It's a bit of a cruel irony that Bruszewski so frequently found herself pinned helplessly behind Adams as the All-American went to work. The lone Notre Dame senior who completed her college eligibility Tuesday night, she was its guiding voice before and after Diggins announced herself as one of the game's great players. McGraw said this week that the team didn't have her personality, it had Bruszewski's personality, a toughness that bordered on orneriness on the court. An Indiana native who didn't receive quite the fanfare for her roots as her more heralded teammate from South Bend, Bruszewski wasn't afraid to call out anyone for failing to match her effort.
"You can't replace a Becca Bruszewski," Novosel said. "She has this amazing ability to rally all of us and focus us to where we have one direction and one way to go. I've learned a lot from her, what it takes to be a leader. I'm definitely going to take that into next season. I want to be a leader for this team, and I couldn't have learned from a better one."
And as much as the game Tuesday night summed up the season just completed for Notre Dame, its final surge to erase a seven-point deficit and tie the game at 66-66 on Diggins' field goal with 3:56 to play also pointed to the future. With eight of the 10 players honored as either first- or second-team AP All-Americans moving on to the WNBA, including Adams, the college game might be in even greater flux than from the normal ebb and flow of talent. With Diggins and Novosel both potential All-Americans next season, and with Peters, Achonwa and Brittany Mallory all eligible to return to McGraw's rotation, the future of Notre Dame basketball will include championship expectations.
Should those expectations be met, expect the players to point back to the feeling they had after the final whistle Tuesday night and the lessons learned from the one player not continuing the journey with them.
"I'm just really proud of them because it was kind of like a child; you could see us grow," assistant coach Jonathan Tsipis said. "And at times to grow, the old adage is we had to take a step back to take two steps forward. I just think they have so much to be proud of, and obviously, Becca's legacy will be cemented in that."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.