Feb. 8, 2000
by Ken Kleppel
The 1999-2000 Notre Dame basketball team provides a great feast for its fans at the Joyce Center. Senior point guard Niele Ivey serves as the appetizer that sets up the main course of junior center Ruth Riley and freshman sharpshooter Alicia Ratay. Add a dash of senior guard Danielle Green, junior forward Kelley Siemon and sophomore Ericka Haney to the mix and the meal is nearly complete. Yet, in order for the brew of veteran and young talent to blend, an important ingredient must be added.
Senior center/forward Julie Henderson is that critical element, and the co-captain knows how to stir the pot.
"She is our vocal leader, she does all those intangible things," emphasizes Ivey. "She knows how to get everybody going and she knows how to turn things on and off."
Henderson, a captain along with Ivey, was the only player on the current roster to compete in the 1997 Final Four. She knows just how special that moment was and offers a valuable lesson to her teammates every game and practice she takes the floor.
"Going to the Final Four made me greedy," describes Henderson. "I will never be satisfied with anything less. Once you've had a taste of playing in the Final Four, nothing is quite as sweet."
Henderson is trying to concoct the same recipe of success that put her in the Final Four that season.
"I know that it takes a mixture of luck, a lot of work, and team chemistry," Henderson says. "We had a pretty good season in 1997, but we peaked at the right time. That's what I'm hoping we do this season - peak at the right time. We haven't played how we have wanted to play all year. We just have be patient and keep working hard."
In 1997, the Irish took everyone by surprise upsetting Texas, Alabama and George Washington in a Final Four journey that saw them lose to eventual national champion Tennessee. The Irish then advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1998 after upsetting fifth-ranked Texas Tech. Notre Dame's success continues, as the Irish have been ranked in the top 25 for a school record 32 consecutive weeks, and have been in the top 10 26 of the last 29 weeks.
Henderson takes great pride in the strides the Notre Dame basketball program has made during her stay and recognizes the significance of the transition from being the hunter, to the hunted.
"Everyone brings their 'A' game when they play against us," Henderson describes. "It keeps you on your toes and makes you better because on any night, anybody can beat anybody."
Henderson has played an essential role in a very potent Irish attack the past four seasons. Relying on her versatility and experience, she provides the front court with a defensive spark and a consistent shooting effort, connecting on more than 54 percent of her shots during her career.
This season, Henderson has really started to shine. She has started 17 of 21 games this season, averaging 19.1 minutes a contest. She currently ranks fourth on the team in rebounding at 4.1 a game and is fifth in assists with 35. She is also third in steals with 25.
In addition, Henderson has more than doubled her scoring per game as she is averaging 5.0 points per game, up from 1.9 points the previous season. Henderson notched her first career double-double at Miami on January 22, as she scored a season-high 13 points and captured a career-high 11 rebounds. It was the first time this season that Henderson had scored in double figures.
Henderson has had an up-and-down career with the Irish as injuries have hampered her production. Seeing action in 119 games entering tonight's contest, which ranks her seventh in the all-time Notre Dame record books, Henderson takes the experience and uses it to her advantage.
"As a player I think I have been on both ends of the spectrum," admits Henderson. "My freshman year, I played about 15 minutes a game. Then sophomore year I started, but then lost my starting spot. This year I'm a starter. I think overcoming those obstacles and never giving up have been my top accomplishments. As a captain, I can help the younger players who are going through the same situation."
This season, Henderson is leading a team that is almost 50 percent sophomores and freshmen. Her goal is to work with each player helping them to take the next step - getting the Irish back to the Final Four.
"We shoot with the underclassmen each practice. We call it 'Getting better Everyday'. We are always talking to them because everyday is something new for them," Henderson said. "We don't consider them freshmen anymore. It's time for them to take a step forward. They have come a long way since the beginning of the year."
The younger players all recognize Henderson's drive and want to help her get back to the promised land called the Final Four.
"She is vocal and energetic on the court, and gets everyone ready to play," notes freshman standout Ratay. "She helps us every day and reminds us of what our goals are for the season."
Coach Muffet McGraw seconds the notion.
"Julie brings emotion and leadership," describes McGraw. "She is a great communicator. She talks a lot on defense and it helps everyone out. In terms of the game, she is our most physical player. She is playing with much much confidence this year and is our inspirational leader."
Henderson's personal confidence on the court has translated into record-setting team success in 2000 as the Irish enter tonight's game against Pittsburgh with a 19-2 record and a number-five national ranking. Yet, her competitive spirit inspires a better vision.
"I love it when we all play as one, although we haven't done it this year yet," says Henderson. "When everyone is clicking, that is when the game is fun. When Ruth is playing her best, when Danielle and Alicia are hot, we all come together and have fun. I love to walk into someone's gym and know we're going to beat you today, knowing it is our court today. I love the competitiveness about it and look forward to it all coming together for the end of the season."