Feb. 27, 2015
When the lights dim at Purcell Pavilion to signal the introduction of the starting lineup for the University of Notre Dame women's basketball team, the stirring tones of "Here Come the Irish," boom out over the loudspeakers.
Spotlights flash across the golden maple court, and glow sticks twinkle to enhance a magical effect.
A roar from the fans builds to a crescendo as the Fighting Irish starters are introduced.
Thursday night, those spotlights beamed on senior Markisha Wright in her regular-season farewell appearance wearing Irish colors. Wright responded by turning in a game that illuminated a legacy built on hard work and commitment.
A 6-foot-2 senior, Wright set the tone for Notre Dame's 87-59 victory against Pittsburgh, a win that clinched a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship for the Irish.
One minute into the game, Wright slashed to the hoop. She took a perfect pass from fellow senior Whitney Holloway and kissed the ball off the glass for lay-up.
Shortly after that, Wright used a power move to connect again.
Pitt fouled Wright to stop another lay-up, but Wright cashed in for two points at the free-throw line.
After a Pitt turnover, Wright swished a jumper, and the Irish were rolling with a 12-4 lead.
Wright score eight of Notre Dame's first 12 points, and by the time the final horn sounded, had scored 14 points.
A remarkable journey became even more exceptional. Notre Dame's title share gives the Irish four consecutive regular season conference championship, a first in a program that stands tall on the national landscape.
Wright, Holloway and Madison Cable form a senior class that has won 134 games, closing in on the Irish record of 138 victories by a class, set last season. They have been to three Final Fours, and as a potential No. 1 seed this season, could reach a fourth Final Four (and the program's fifth in as many years).
"They have been incredibly dependable and stable," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said of the seniors. "They are the group that has never been in trouble. We've always been able to count on them academically; we've never had to have a meeting with any of them, because they're always right on whatever they're supposed to be doing. They've been exceptional role models for this team."
Wright's start was too much for Pitt.
"I've always been impressed by her, watching her over the years and what she brought to the team," Pitt coach Suzie McConnell-Serio said of Wright. "She has started many games in the past - I think she and Natalie Achonwa fed off of each other in the past. When she was in the starting line-up ... it wasn't a surprise and we knew the type of player that she was. She came out and was impressive from the very beginning."
Wright, who averages 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds a game, has has exceptional moments for the Irish. She made a forceful impact in last season's stunning 87-61 NCAA national semifinal victory against Maryland, giving the Irish a huge boost with star player Achonwa out because of a knee injury. Wright scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds to help Notre Dame reach the NCAA championship game in Nashville.
"Markisha is someone who, whatever we need, she's going to do," Irish associate head coach Carol Owens said. "It may not be points. Some days, it may be rebounds. Another day, it may be defense, which is one of her strengths. On any given day, she can give us the things that we need at some point. She's always done that for us, for four years. She's kind of that unsung hero. She's a very unselfish person and a great teammate.
"When you look at the history of our program, we've had role players, like Fraderica Miller. In really good programs, there have been role players. Would they prefer to be starting and scoring 20 points a game? Maybe ... probably. Some people are comfortable with their roles. Markisha is the kind of kid who will do whatever we need. I think she's had a lot of success doing that. She's been to three Final Fours on a Top 5 program. Would you want to be a part of a program that's had that kind of success? Probably."
McGraw said that Wright was efficient in moving well and cutting to the basket, working the pick-and-roll against Pitt.
"It was fun tonight," McGraw said. "Markisha has been so steady and dependable for four years. She's always a hard worker at practice every day, always thinking about her teammates first, always encouraging, so unselfish, never worried about herself. I think she's left a really nice legacy."
Wright handled the emotions of senior night, and handled the Panthers.
"I thought it was going to be a lot more emotional today," Wright said. "I'm really excited that I've gotten to play with this wonderful group of girls, and these wonderful coaches. It's going to be sad when I have to leave, but it's not over yet.
"The experiences I've had with Notre Dame have been really cool. I don't think we look at the small things. We're all happy and blessed that we're here. It's great that our class is the only class to win four (regular-season) conference titles, but I think we're happy to be playing with each other. Hopefully, we can keep moving forward."
Wright said that her Notre Dame experience has been more than basketball.
"Notre Dame has taught me so many important lessons in life," Wright said. "I wouldn't have half the things that I have now if I wouldn't have come to Notre Dame, and I still have bigger opportunities that have been placed in front of me."
Irish star Jewell Loyd said that Wright has made a significant impact on the Irish program.
"Markisha's a very hard worker," Loyd said. "She's the best screener. She's loyal to that screen and she's going to do her job on the screen and roll. She knows her role and she's the best at it. She comes in, she knows what she has to do, and she's the hardest worker on this team.
"She's able to connect with people on a different people. If I can't connect with someone I know that she can because she's just very personable. She's a great leader of our team."
Wright, who could get two more home games if the Irish, as expected, are chosen to host first and second-round games in the NCAA Tournament, said that she will cherish the relationships as much as anything else.
"My teammates have been so fantastic," Wright said. "Every year we've had a different team, and every year I've loved every one of those girls. They have always been there for me. We've all been there for each other. I love these girls, and we'll be friends forever."
-- By Curt Rallo/special correspondent