Sept. 7, 2000
Success at Notre Dame has led to high expectations for head coach Muffet McGraw. It wasn't too long ago that the Irish mentor, now entering her 14th season, was happy for her team just to be invited to the NCAA tournament in March.
But oh how times have changed for McGraw and the Irish. Five consecutive NCAA tournament trips and three Sweet 16 appearances in the last four years, have placed Notre Dame amongst the nation's elite in women's basketball circles.
Notre Dame's success has produced staggering numbers since its first-ever NCAA Final Four appearance in 1997 as the Irish have won 79.7 percent of their games in compiling a 106-27 mark over the last four years. Last season's 27 wins were the second most in school history with its 27-5 mark producing the best winning percentage (.844) in the 23-year history of the program. The Irish spent all but two weeks ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press weekly rankings, and Ruth Riley became the first women's basketball player to earn first-team AP All-America honors.
Winning has become the norm for the Irish, but McGraw knows all too well that greater challenges face her and her team this season as they look to maintain the momentum they have established. With perhaps the best team in Notre Dame history assembled for the 2000-2001 campaign, the Irish will settle for nothing less than a second trip to the Final Four.
"We have a chance to be a very good team and have another great season," McGraw says. "We can't afford to rest on our laurels and be satisfied with our past successes. This team was very disappointed in the way the season ended last year and our loss to Texas Tech in the regional semifinals. We need to stay focused this year in pursuit of achieving our goals."
Notre Dame's three returning starters are three of the nation's top players at their positions. Riley, regarded as the premier center in women's basketball today, once again is a contender for national player-of-the-year honors. The two-time BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year, led the Irish in scoring and rebounding for the second straight year in 1999-2000.
Fifth-year player Niele Ivey, arguably one of the best point guards nationally, will again key the Irish backcourt. Ivey, who has battled two ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries during her career, returned to the Irish lineup last season and proved why she is such a valuable member of this team. The second-team all-BIG EAST honoree was among the squad's scoring leaders, in addition to leading Notre Dame in assists and steals.
Sophomore Alicia Ratay quickly established herself as one of the top perimeter shooters in the country. The BIG EAST Rookie of the Year earned honorable mention All-America honors in addition to setting the Notre Dame single-season three-point field goal percentage mark. Ratay's outside shooting ability makes her a tough player for opposing teams to defend.
"There aren't many teams in the country that can boast the experience and talent that Ruth, Niele and Alicia bring to our team," McGraw says. "They are three of the best players in the country at their respective positions. They're extremely committed to helping us reach that next step, and we're fortunate to build a team around players of their caliber."
McGraw will look to replace two starters, forward Julie Henderson and guard Danielle Green. Henderson provided the intangibles in terms of leadership and motivation that will be hard to replace, while Green's scoring and rebounding abilities, coupled with her overall athleticism, will be missed.
"Julie was a real inspirational leader for us last season, and a main factor in why we were so successful," McGraw says. "We're really going to miss the intangibles she provided in terms of leadership and motivation each and every time she took the court for a game or in practice.
"Danielle's athleticism gave us such offensive and defensive versatility, we could count on her scoring and rebounding. She was such a deceptive player and added so much versatility to our gameplan."
Notre Dame has relied heavily on the balance of an inside-outside game over the past several years, and that is something that McGraw is unlikely to tamper with considering the talent she has returning at all spots on the floor. The Irish boast another solid frontcourt with a perimeter game and backcourt that is expected to be the best ever in terms of depth and talent at the guard position.
Seniors Kelley Siemon and Meaghan Leahy bolster the Irish fortunes up front, along with sophomore Amanda Barksdale who is expected to see considerable more playing time this season. Siemon, a starter as a freshman and sophomore, came off the bench last season, and she adjusted well to her role. She, however, will be in position this season to regain that starting job.
Leahy looks to have her best season yet in her final campaign. A proven rebounder, McGraw hopes she will be able to contribute more offensively.
As the lone returning underclassmen in the frontcourt, it is going to be imperative for Barksdale to get quality time in the lineup as well.
Ericka Haney, the only junior, is as gifted a player there is on the squad in terms of her athleticism, potential and talent. Haney proved that she can be a dominant player at both ends of the floor, and McGraw expects her to be much more comfortable with her role in the lineup this season.
Notre Dame's backcourt depth is strengthened by the return of senior Imani Dunbar and sophomores Monique Hernandez and Karen Swanson, a walk-on. Along with them, the addition of freshmen Jeneka Joyce and Le'Tania Severe, two players ranked among the top 40 prep standouts a year ago by Blue Star, gives the Irish tremendous outside shooting talent as well as speed and quickness to improve Notre Dame's transition game.
"We're a much more versatile team this year in terms of our speed and quickness, and the play of our guard is going to be a real key for us," McGraw says. "In my 14 seasons here at Notre Dame, this is our most talented group of guards ever. They're play on the perimeter and in transition, especially creating turnovers off of our defense, will enable us to score in a number of different ways."
In addition to the competitiveness of the 16-game BIG EAST slate, Notre Dame once again will be challenged by an extremely demanding non-conference schedule that McGraw believes will prepare the Irish for the BIG EAST and NCAA tournaments in March. McGraw's squad is one of four teams (the others are Wisconsin, Georgia and Oklahoma) featured at the Coaches vs. Cancer Challenge in Madison, Wis., during the Thanksgiving holiday. That will be followed by an appearance at the Honda Elite Classic the following weekend in Orlando, Fla. The non-conference slate includes matchups versus Arizona, Purdue and Western Michigan at home and road contests against Marquette and USC.
"While the BIG EAST continues to get better and better every year, it's important that we continue to play a tough non-conference schedule which prepares us for the end of the season," McGraw says. "My staff and I have taken great pride in the schedule we've put together in past years, and we have not changed our philosophy this season. In fact, this year's schedule is one of the best and helps prepare us to reach our goals."
The mere mention of Notre Dame's inside game conjures up one image - dominance. Since the arrival of All-American and player-of-the-year candidate Ruth Riley, McGraw has been left with little to worry about when it comes to her center. Heading into the 2000-01 season, there may be no player at her position in the game as talented as the 6-5 Macy, Ind., native who averaged 16.2 points and 7.3 rebounds a year ago.
The only first-team Associated Press All-American in the program's history, Riley ranks as the school's all-time career blocked shots (257) and field goal percentage (.634) leader. Heading into her final campaign, she needs just 274 rebounds to become the school's all-time leader in that category as well.
"Ruth certainly has established herself as one of the premier players in the game," McGraw says. "She has been committed to making herself the best player she can possibly be, no player we have has worked as hard as Ruth.
"Ruth is as dominant of a player at both ends of the floor as anyone we have had here at Notre Dame and all the accolades she has received, and the ones she will earn this year, are well deserved. With the strength of our outside game this season, she may be an even more effective player for us. Our consistency from the outside may make it difficult for opposing teams to double-team her this season." "We need Ruth to stay on the floor," McGraw says. "In the past we've struggled somewhat with her on the bench when she has gotten into foul trouble. Because she takes so much pride in her game, Ruth has a tendency to get herself into foul trouble trying to make plays when she is out of position. Hopefully, she can improve that area of her game this season."
After losing her starting job as a junior, Kelley Siemon is anxious to assert herself back into a starting lineup this season. The 6-2 forward from Edina, Minn., native came off the bench in all but four contests a year ago and averaged 6.5 points and 5.0 rebounds. Siemon is one of the team's most athletic and talented players who has displayed solid play for three seasons at both end of the floor.
Last year, she incorporated a free-throw jumper into her offensive repertoire, but proves to be most effective as a scorer when the Irish run in transition. Siemon gets down the floor extremely well and is able to finish her offensive opportunities following outlet passes. McGraw is hoping she can improve on her offensive numbers this season and become more involved in the gameplan.
"I'm expecting Kelley to have a great season," McGraw says. "She knows what she needs to do to become more of a scoring threat and to improve her overall game. The more she is able to establish her perimeter game, the better we will be as a team. Kelley's ability to increase her offensive productivity will take some pressure off of Ruth."
The experience of Meaghan Leahy, a 6-4 forward, should pay dividends for the Irish in the post. McGraw expects a breakthrough season for the Wilbraham, Mass. native. Look for Leahy to improve upon her 2.4 scoring and rebounding averages of a year ago and to become more of an integral part of the Irish offense. Like Siemon, she has developed a perimeter jumper that will force opposing defenses away from the basket
"Meaghan know that this is her final season, and she has done everything we have asked of her during the off-season so that she can contribute in a number of different ways," McGraw. "Meaghan wants to end her career in the best way possible and she has worked extremely hard to improve all facets of her game. She gives us power in the post, but with her perimeter shooting, makes us a much tougher team to defend. I'm counting on her to give us quality minutes this season."
With just one year remaining in the careers of Riley, Siemon and Leahy, sophomore Amanda Barksdale, a 6-3 center, represents the future of Notre Dame basketball in the post. She played in 28 games last season and averaged 1.1 points and 1.2 rebounds. A terrific shot-blocking talent, Barksdale finished second in that category with 34 blocked shots. McGraw is looking for her to continue to improve defensively as well as hoping she will become more involved offensively.
"Amanda has made great strides since the end of the season in order to become more of a complete player," McGraw says. "She knows that in terms of her overall development, this is a very critical year for her as she will be our only returnee up front next season. Amanda has worked hard in the weight room to get stronger and that should pay off in improving her scoring and rebounding numbers throughout the year."
McGraw can only smile when she thinks about the talent and versatility in terms of scoring potential of this year's backcourt which features two of the BIG EAST's best players in senior guard Niele Ivey and sophomore Alicia Ratay.
Ivey presence and contributions on the floor are unmistakable, the fifth-year player is certainly the team's leader in so many different ways. Despite ACL surgery on both of her knees (the right in '96 and left in '99), Ivey has shown few signs of being slowed. She heads into her final season coming off an injury-free campaign in 1999-2000. She netted 11.2 points in 32 games last season (one of four players who averaged double figures) and contributed 3.5 rebounds per contest. In addition, Ivey ranked among the nation's leaders in assists (6.1 aspg.) and topped the team in steals (95), averaging nearly three per game.
The 5-8 St. Louis, Mo., native can score in a number of ways with a deadly three-point shot as well as having the ability to drive to the basket. Ivey shot 43.3 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from three-point range last season. She is one of three outside shooting threats and a major component in Notre Dame's strong perimeter which McGraw believes is the best in her 13 seasons.
"Niele is such a competitive player and vital part of our team in terms of both her offensive and defensive abilities," McGraw says. "Few point guards in the country can do what Niele does at both ends of the floor. She can score from the outside, but is not afraid to go inside by driving to the basket. Niele has such a positive effect on the this team, her poise and confidence gives her teammates that same confidence too when they are on the court."
Ratay, a 5-11 product of Lake Zurich, Ill., had one of the best rookie campaigns of any Irish player in the program's history. She wasted little time in asserting herself into the lineup and establishing herself as one of the top freshmen in the nation. The only Notre Dame player to start all 32 contests, the 2000 BIG EAST Rookie of the Year was an AP honorable mention selection after averaging 14.0 points (second best on the team) and 5.0 rebounds a year ago. She set the Irish single-season three-point field goal percentage mark, hitting 48.0 percent from three-point range, while connecting on 49.3 percent on all of her shots.
One of the best outside shooting guards in the country, Ratay showed tremendous poise and confidence the moment she stepped on the court last season. The 447 points she tallied as a freshman are the third most ever by an Irish rookie. In addition to her scoring prowess, Ratay gave the Irish significant rebounding help and was second on the team in steals (49).
"We knew before the season started last year that Alicia was going to be an impact player for us," McGraw says. "but she exceeded all of our expectations. By the time her career is over, she'll be regarded as the best three-point shooters in the history of the program and perhaps in the BIG EAST. With her outside shooting ability, she keeps opposing defenses honest.
"Alicia has a quiet demeanor that is somewhat deceiving She is a very competitive individual, but this year I would like to see become a little bit more aggressive on the court. We would like to see her become more active in our transition game, and we're looking for her to continue to provide defensive rebounding help."
Junior Ericka Haney is perhaps one of Notre Dame's most versatile and athletic players. She excels at both ends of the floor and is one of the team's most complete players in terms of her offensive and defensive skills. The 6-1 guard/forward from Toledo, Ohio has demonstrated the ability to score points in a number of different ways, either from the perimeter shooter or by driving to the basket.
One of the team's most complete players, the 6-1 guard/forward can score in a number of different ways at both ends of the floor. Her athletic versatility and talent allows her to excel at both ends of the floor. She demonstrated an all-around game and proved that she could score from the perimeter and by driving to the basket. Haney, who started five contests a year ago, averaged 6.8 points and 3.7 rebounds, but McGraw looks for those numbers to improve this season. She also will continue to be one of the team's best defensive stoppers.
"Ericka has improved every facet of her game since coming to Notre Dame," McGraw says. "We're expecting her to once again contend for a starting job in the lineup. She is very comfortable with and understands her role on the court. Ericka will contribute in a number of different ways and once again will contend for a starting spot in the lineup.
Senior Imani Dunbar, a 5-7 point guard from San Angelo, Texas, once again will be used primarily in defensive situations. Dunbar has shown that she can run the floor from the backcourt, but the strength of her game comes from her defense. She started five games for the Irish last season and dished out 49 assists in the 26 games she played, while averaging 1.1 points and 1.4 rebounds. Dunbar understands her role on the team and is a very unselfish player.
"Imani has contributed in a number of different ways for us during the past three seasons," McGraw says, "With the increased playing time she saw last season and her experience as a starter, she has become a much more confident player on the court. Imani's primary role once again will be as a defensive stoppers."
Sophomore Monique Hernandez, a 5-9 product of Rio Rancho, N.M., is one of the most competitive players on the team, she plays with a great deal of emotion and passion when she is on the court. McGraw looks for her role to be expanded this season as a backup to Ivey at point guard. Hernandez saw action in 27 games last season and averaged 2.4 points 1.0 rebounds.
"Monique has a tremendous work ethic and is an extremely intense player," McGraw says. "A vocal and strong leader, I expect her to be more comfortable taking on more of a leadership role this season. Monique's quickness is her greatest asset. She gets the ball up the court quickly and her style of play fits in well with out system. I look for her to see more playing time this season and become much more involved in our offense."
Incoming freshmen Jeneka Joyce, a 5-9 shooting guard from Topeka, Kan,. and Le' Tania Severe, a 5-9 point guard out of Ft. Lauderdale, represent one of Notre Dame most heralded recruiting classes. Both were listed among the top 80 prep players in the country last season. They will be a great complement to this Irish squad and fill a lot of the team's needs in terms of quickness, speed and outside shooting.
McGraw is confident that Joyce, a third-team Parade All-America honoree, will step in and contribute immediately. Joyce averaged 21.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game last season. She is a very versatile player with strong all-around skills. There are very few weaknesses overall, and like Ratay did last season as a freshman, will display great poise and presence on the court.
"Jeneka is a complete player because she can do so many different things ," McGraw says. "She shoots the ball well from the outside, is a strong rebounder, and has excellent ball-handling skills. Jeneka is an adept passer with tremendous court vision. What impresses me most about her is the poise she plays with under pressure, I don't expect her to get rattled very easily. She will fit in well here at Notre Dame because she is a real team player."
Severe will add considerable speed and quickness to the Irish backcourt. An exceptional athlete, she averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists during her final scholastic season. With the loss of Danielle Green, Severe's defensive game is what is going to earn her playing time this season. McGraw also figures she will be a big part of the team's transition game.
"The speed and quickness of Le'Tania will benefit the running and transition game we hope to utilize more this season," McGraw says. "She is a talented athlete with tremendous all-around skills. The strength of her game is her defense, and it is that part of her game which will earn her playing time on the floor this season."
Sophomore walk-on Karen Swanson, a 5-7 shooting guard from Westlake, Ohio, was a pleasant addition to the Irish roster last season. A favorite among Irish fans, she was a spark for Notre Dame coming off the bench late in the game. Swanson played in 23 contests and showed last season that she is not afraid to shoot the ball."
"Every team needs someone like Karen," McGraw says. "She works extremely hard in practice and contributes in so many different ways. Karen has a strong work ethic, and a great understanding of what her role is on this team. She is a very focused player who is well-liked and respected by her teammates."
McGraw and her staff have assembled one of the toughest schedules in recent seasons. The Irish start off the 2000-01 campaign at the Coaches vs. Cancer Challenge in Madison, Wis. Notre Dame is scheduled to play defending WNIT champion Wisconsin in first round action, and then will meet either Georgia or Oklahoma in the championship or consolation contests.
The Irish also will participate in the Honda Elite Classic in Orlando, Fla. where McGraw's squad will play Atlantic Coast Conference power North Carolina. Notre Dame also faces a tough non-conference slate with home games scheduled against Arizona, Purdue and Western Michigan. Away from the Joyce Center, where the Irish own a 23-game winning streak, Notre Dame faces Marquette and USC.
The BIG EAST once again will pose many challenges with Notre Dame, Rutgers, Boston College and Connecticut all vying for the top spots again. Newcomer Virginia Tech, along with Georgetown, will challenge the league's frontrunners.
"There is no doubt that the BIG EAST is one of the premier
conferences in the country," McGraw says. "We've experience great success
in the NCAA tournament the last several years. Having both Connecticut and
Rutgers in the Final Four last year added to the credibility of our leage.
There is no easy game, and from top to bottom, the conference has been
better and stronger every year."