April 8, 2015
It's tough to see the positives when they are cloaked in the pain of defeat.
On Tuesday night, the University of Notre Dame women's basketball team walked off the Amalie Arena court in Tampa coming up short in its goal of capturing a national championship, but the Fighting Irish nonetheless proved they were deep in heart, talent and fight.
Those characteristics, which will be shaped by Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw and her staff, are the traits that can turn the 2015-16 season into a banner year for the Irish.
Connecticut turned back a gutty effort by the Irish 63-53 in the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship title game.
Notre Dame's amazing season came to an end with a 36-3 record, a year in which few expected the Irish would make a remarkable fifth consecutive NCAA Final Four appearance and a season Irish fans hope will springboard into greater success next season.
"We thought going into the season that we were a year away," McGraw said. "Without a senior starter ... they really stepped up."
Freshman Brianna Turner, a 6-foot-3 post, gave the Irish their biggest glimpse of what the future holds. Turner scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Most of that came after she didn't score in the first half and only had three rebounds in the first 20 minutes.
"I felt like this has been a great experience for her, and she really showed what she's capable of," Irish associate head coach Carol Owens said. "She showed the caliber of player she is. She's going to be one of the best players that people have seen and one of the best players to come out of Notre Dame.
"I knew she could do it. She just showed it on the big stage, especially the second half. We ran some things to get her the ball and she stepped up. We told her we needed her to score, to be more aggressive and more assertive, to look to score--and she did that."
Turner made the NCAA Final Four all-tournament team, and McGraw called her a difference-maker.
"Brianna has completely changed our team," McGraw said. "Adding her to this team has been one of the reasons why we've been so successful. Her rebounding, her shot blocking, her ability to score around the basket ... she runs the floor ... she does so many things well. She gave us a huge lift. For a freshman to play this well and make the all-tournament team at the Final Four is very impressive. There are great things in store for her."
Turner said the main thing she learned from her first NCAA Championship is to be forceful the entire 40 minutes.
"The biggest thing I learned is to just play two halves," Turner said. "I only played one half tonight. You have to play consistent throughout the entire game. In the first half I just really wasn't aggressive enough. So in the second half I wanted to just play hard for my team. I'll come back next year more confident and ready to go from the beginning."
Jewell Loyd, who scored 12 points for the Irish, said Turner has the potential to be dominant next season.
"When Brianna isn't timid she's the best post player in the country," Loyd said. "When she's a little scared, she shies away and she's average. But she can do so many different things and she can impact the game in so many ways. Once she breaks out of her shell, the sky is the limit for her."
Turner and sophomore Taya Reimer saw most of the action for the posts and played tough defense. Morgan Tuck, who scored 25 points in UConn's regular-season win against Notre Dame, scored 12 points on four-of-13 shooting. Breanna Stewart, who scored 15 against Notre Dame in the regular-season match-up, scored eight.
"I felt like our post players did a great job inside defensively," Owens said. "When we had them in the half-court, we did well. We also rebounded well. At the end, we just needed a little more executing on offense and taking care of the ball.
"I'm excited about all of the post players we have for next year," Owens continued. "They want to get better. They want to get that ring. They know what it's like now on that stage. This is a valuable lesson for them. They saw they can play at the highest of high levels."
McGraw also saw great development in the posts this season.
"I think our post game was what stepped up the most," McGraw said. "Taya Reimer had a phenomenal season. Brianna Turner, for a young player, had a great year. I think we have great potential. But everybody is returning just about everybody, so it's going to be a lot more competitive next year."
For McGraw next season starts now.
"I think practice starts tomorrow," McGraw said. "We have to be ready to go. I'm really looking forward to this freshman class coming in."
All three of the incoming freshmen--Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale and Ali Patberg--are guards and have All-America credentials.
"I'm hoping the freshmen help us," McGraw said. "That's what we need. We need some great guards to come in and be able to defend and score, and hopefully give us an opportunity to take Lindsay and Jewell out of the game. We really didn't have a sub for them this year. It was difficult if they weren't playing well, because we really didn't have another point guard. Certainly, we didn't have another All-American the caliber of Jewell.
"We've got a great opportunity to look at some of the weaknesses that were exposed tonight. I think those guards can really help us. So I've got really optimistic, high hopes for next year."
For Taya Reimer, the dream of cutting down the nets for the national championship in Indianapolis next season is extra motivation to keep her development surging.
"It's more and more motivation," Reimer said. "Two years in a row ... it hurts. We're going to work really hard. All of us grew so much this season. We really saw what we can do, and we haven't even scratched the surface of our potential.
"It would be nice to get back to Indianapolis and play in front of my family in my hometown, and we've got to work to do what we need to do to be holding that trophy."
Reimer said the main drive is from the pain of losing in the final game.
"I mean, obviously, it hurts," Reimer said of the defeat. " We had a lot of growth this season--and we really came together. So it's really tough. We really wanted this. But we're just going to use it as motivation for next year.
"Obviously, the offseason starts now," Reimer said. "So we're using it as motivation, because we want to get back to this moment and we want to be the ones out there holding the trophy. We have such a young team, and we have so much talent and so much depth. We're going to be back. We all love the game of basketball. We all want to be national champions. That's our main goal. It hurts to have that goal close and not to get it. We're going to use this as motivation."
Hannah Huffman, a defensive stopper for the Irish, is now a senior leader. Huffman saw progress from the 2014 loss in the title game to Connecticut compared to the 2015 championship game loss to Connecticut.
"Last year, when they went up by 10, we ended up losing by 20," Huffman said. "This year we ended up losing by 10, but we cut the lead down to seven, to five a couple times. It was those times that we gave up the lead that really hurt us. But there is a lot to say about the fight in our team tonight."
Huffman said the Irish were angry at the way they lost. Notre Dame was outscored 15-6 in points off turnovers, and after holding Connecticut to three-of-13 shooting from three-point range in the first half, Connecticut hit five of 10 in the second half.
"For a while, there will be a lot of anger," Huffman said. "I know I'm really upset, more mad than sad. Right there at the end, we'd cut it down to seven or five and then give up a shot that we haven't given up all night to people who we know are shooters. It's just so frustrating to know that when you're playing so hard, it's not making the smart play that hurts you.
"Next year, I want to keep that theme of a resilient team, a team of fighters, but I think in the off-season we need to get smarter. That comes with a young team. It's hard to have a smart team when you're young, but I'm taking it upon myself and I know the rest of the seniors will also take it upon themselves to make sure we're smart, that we know the game better."
Notre Dame in 2014-15 started two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.
Point guard Lindsay Allen, a sophomore, expects the Irish to grow up a lot for the run to the national championship game.
"I think it's definitely a learning experience for this young team," Allen said. "We have a lot of our players coming back this year, and it's going to be another great season. It's just a learning lesson. We're going to take a lot from this game, and I think next year we'll be more mature and ready for it."
"We will definitely take this as a learning lesson. We're going to mature. We shot ourselves in the foot with all the turnovers we had, and that's a part of being a young team. We have to value the ball more. Getting older and watching the film from this game will definitely help us grow."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent