Jan. 27, 2000
By Ken Kleppel
If every contest in the BIG EAST is a battle, then the Fighting Irish must certainly boast a strong leader to commandeer the charge. Senior point guard Niele Ivey is that floor general, and the co-captain is leading her troops into battle as March approaches.
"She is everything you would want in a leader. She is intense, vocal and is a prankster on the team," describes senior guard Danielle Green of Ivey. "She tries so hard to get everybody going. Back in 1996, when I was injured, I remember watching Niele work so hard as a freshman. I remember trying to be like her."
Defined by a relentless work ethic on the hardwood in both games and practice, Ivey takes pride in her teammate's compliment.
"My favorite part of the game is getting everybody else involved," the unselfish veteran reveals. "Every time I go into the game, I want to make sure I can get everyone involved. Also, I emphasize playing defense because it generates my offense. Those are my goals each time I step onto the floor."
Her lofty ambitions are usually accomplished as she has consistently improved on her 1998-1999 averages of nearly 6.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game. A third-team all-BIG EAST selection and co-winner of the Notre Dame National Monogram Club MVP Award in 1999, Ivey averaged 13.2 points and 3.8 rebounds a game. She scored in double-figures in 22 of 28 games last season and posted four double-doubles.
All this success would cause anyone to want to play basketball, but Ivey credits her family for stirring her love of the game.
"My family would be the biggest influence," says Ivey. "I had four older brothers who were all very good athletes in high school. Growing up I think I looked up to them a lot, I used to go to a lot of their games and play at halftime. My mom was very influential too, especially through all the adversities I had to go through. She is the one who stayed behind me, supported me and told me I was good enough to continue playing.
Unfortunately for Ivey, two serious knee injuries are among the major challenges her mom has had to help her through on the collegiate level. Suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee just five games into the 1996 season, Ivey was unable to physically contribute during the program's first trip to the Final Four in 1997.
"The first injury was so hard because we had never been in the Final Four, and I did not get a chance to play, but it was great for me to watch," describes the perpetually optimistic Ivey.
Back to full strength and playing the best basketball of her life, Ivey was on pace for tournament MVP honors at the 1999 BIG EAST tournament. She had scored 19 points in a quarterfinal matchup with Villanova as she connected on all five of her shots from the field, including shooting three-for-three from three-point range, and was perfect on all six attempts from the free throw line. The next night against Rutgers, Ivey scored 16 points, grabbed five rebounds, recorded six assists, and stole the ball five times before the injury bug bit Ivey again, as she suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, this time in her left knee, early in the second half.
"So far, the Rutgers game is the best of my career," claims a smiling Ivey. "On all levels, I felt the most confidence I have ever played with in my life. It was fun. I was on cloud nine that day until I went down with the knee injury. That would have been a career day for me if I hadn't got hurt.
Nevertheless, the support of her friends provided the proper remedy for dealing with another setback.
"The second time around I had a lot of support through families and teammates. All around the country and around the world, people supported and showed me I can come back from the injury," Ivey reveals. "Especially after the first one, coming back playing well and going down again, I knew I was capable of coming back again. My freshman year was harder because I was young and didn't know a lot of things I know now. I wasn't as close with a lot of people and everything was really new to me. My junior year, there were so many more faces out there supporting me."
Fellow co-captain and roommate, senior forward Julie Henderson perhaps understands Ivey the best.
"Niele is very determined," Henderson describes. "She has a lot of heart and it carries over to everyone else. She could have quit a long time ago after injuring both ACL's but she refused."
Ivey's focus remains consistent with her primary aspiration.
"I am still searching for the top accomplishment, I cannot settle for anything less," describes Ivey. "I am just happy that I have overcome these injuries. Going through rehab there was a little saying in the back of my head that I couldn't do it. Getting out here and everyday doing the same thing that I did before I got hurt is a great accomplishment because that was very hard to do. But my number one goal is still to go all the way to the NCAA title."
As the Irish currently reign atop the BIG EAST, the 2000 campaign may offer the program's best chance yet.
"I am so happy to be a part of the transition," notes Ivey. "Since my freshman year, every year we have gone back to the tournament which is something that hasn't been done before. I am just happy to be that stepping stone for this program because I think we are going to continue to be one of the top programs. Coming here, I wanted to help bring this program to the same level as Connecticut and Tennessee. I think that everyone who is on the team now, and in the past, has helped it become that. It is really great to see that the program is getting much more publicity and that people are following us now."
Ranked eighth in the nation with 6.6 assists a game, and averaging 11.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, and a team-high 2.7 steals per game, her efforts are certainly contributing to the group's good fortune.
Her four double-doubles this season earned her a fourth career BIG EAST player-of-the-week honor during the week ending January 17.
"I am a very scrappy player and give 110 percent," Ivey explains. "I just put my all into anything I do out there, whether it is trying to get assists, rebounding or defense. Through my hard work, I get good results. For instance, my jump shot has improved. I have worked real hard on trying to improve my shot."
Yet, her approach to the game remains the same.
"I am a very humble person," describes Ivey. "I get out there feeling that I am the same as anybody else. Whatever opponent I am up against, I feel like I always have to prove them wrong. I work hard instead of being an arrogant player. I am just grateful to God that I am healthy and thank him everyday for giving me these talents."
Her teammates are thankful as well.