Sept. 20, 2007
One of the iconic symbols in American jurisprudence is the statue of "Lady Justice." Often cast in bronze, the blindfolded woman holds a double-edged sword in one hand and the scales of justice in the other. She depicts the moral and ethical forces that make up the foundation of our legal system. Her blindfold is used to symbolize the concept that justice should be handed down objectively, without fear or prejudice against one side, regardless of the identity, power or perceived weakness of those standing in judgment.
At the same time, the symbol of the scales show the equal weight with which justice holds the arguments from both sides. And, the sword is shown to emphasize the power of reason and justice that can be handed down for or against either party.
In many ways, "Lady Justice" was an entirely appropriate representation of Notre Dame's basketball fortunes in 2006-07. The Irish endured an early hardship when their top returning scorer and rebounder, guard Lindsay Schrader, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee four days into preseason practice. That injury was one of several hurdles Notre Dame had to overcome, along with the graduation of two other high-profile veterans, a returning core that included no player averaging more than 8.5 points per game, and the addition of an untested rookie class.
In light of those questions, the BIG EAST Conference coaches were unforgiving in their preseason poll, dropping the Irish to the unfamiliar spot of 11th, a number that would turn out to be a rallying cry for respect during the season. It also was a quick lesson for Notre Dame's players and coaches, who understood right away that justice -- or in the case of the BIG EAST, success -- is never achieved without a fight and no opponent will sympathize with their struggles or offer anything less than their best effort.
Knowing the only people they could count on were themselves, the Irish turned inward and found a reservoir of strength and determination that bubbled forth in the form of a 20-12 record and a 12th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Notre Dame also battled its way to the bitter end, never giving an inch to top-seeded (and second-ranked) North Carolina in their NCAA Tournament second-round matchup and taking the Tar Heels to the brink before falling, 60-51.
"I thought we overachieved in a lot of different areas last year and the best part about it was that we bonded as a team and played like a team," 21st-year Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. "Sure, we were very disappointed in the outcome of that North Carolina game when we felt we played pretty well. But, coming from being picked 11th in the BIG EAST to almost beating a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, we felt really good about that. I think our confidence was at an all-time high.
"When you come from a successful program, your expectations are going to be pretty high," she continued. "We've been to the Sweet 16 and Final Four consistently, but for our younger players, it was a new experience to be considered the underdogs and very much a challenge. It's even a bit of an insult, but you hope the team will respond in a way that is positive and that is exactly how they took it. We wanted a chance to go out show people and prove people that we're better than that."
Fast forward to the 2007-08 season and the Irish have a renewed energy about them. Collectively, they are like the sword of "Lady Justice," forged in the heat of battle and ready for all comers. However, a new year brings with new challenges, and Notre Dame will have to apply every ounce of its experience from past seasons to emerge victorious in the coming campaign.
Depth has traditionally never been a strong suit for Notre Dame, which makes the 2007-08 season such an intriguing one for the Irish. Eight monogram winners are back in uniform, including three starters and three critical reserves who earned a berth on the BIG EAST All-Freshmen Team (the most honorees from one school in conference history). In fact, more than 80 percent of Notre Dame's offensive production returns this season, including the squad's top four scorers from a year ago. That doesn't even count Schrader, who returns to active duty after ranking as the No. 2 Irish scorer and team's top rebounder while starting nearly every game as a freshman in '05-06.
As if that weren't enough, Notre Dame welcomes the nation's No. 11 recruiting class (according to Blue Star Basketball), a three-player group that is highlighted by its potential to seamlessly complement the Irish veteran core and form a solid balance at both the offensive and defensive ends. It's an exciting blend of experience and youth that already has McGraw anxious to roll the ball out for preseason practice in October.
"Our players are expecting more," she said. "They want more for themselves and the team and they're happy they got us back to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. To get back on track was what we needed to do. Now, they are expecting even bigger things. They expect to be ranked in the Top 25 and they expect to be picked near the top of the BIG EAST. For them, last year was more of an anomaly and certainly we are not going to be underdogs very much during their careers.
"I've been sensing a renewed hunger and desire to accept nothing less than the absolute best, and it's an entire team feeling. That's the difference. You always have one or two players that expect to win or want to win and know they are going to have to contribute to do that. But now, each and every player has taken ownership of the team. They feel responsible for their collective success and they are all willing to go out and give it their all to do that."
Here's a position-by-position breakdown for Notre Dame entering the 2007-08 season:
Standing 5-foot-7, Gaines has an aggressive "catch-me-if-you-can" style on the court, enhanced by her fiery temperament as well as her ability to incite teammates and Joyce Center fans alike. She is universally respected in the Irish locker room for her skill in leading by example, a trait that resulted in her selection as a team captain for the second year in a row. A veteran playmaker who has yet to back down from a challenge, Gaines will be critical to setting the tempo for Notre Dame this season.
"Tulyah has really grown into a great leader for this team," McGraw said. "She is the perfect choice to lead this group and she has learned a lot. She has really become more vocal, coming out of her comfort zone to help lead the team, and she is willing to do whatever it takes to win. She is someone the team respects because they know she cares about them and she cares only about winning. She doesn't care about her personal stats. She is going to spread the ball and play good defense. She is going to do anything she has to do for this team to win."
While Gaines may be the experienced thoroughbred in the Irish lineup, Lechlitner could easily classified as the frisky young colt. Growing up under the shadow of the Golden Dome in Mishawaka, Ind., and spending her prep career just a stone's throw from the Joyce Center at South Bend St. Joseph's High School, Lechlitner has all the skills of a prototypical point guard, including a creative flair and court sense that already puts her ahead of the curve in the college game. In addition, her perimeter scoring ability stretches defenses and opens the floor for her teammates, adding yet another weapon in the Notre Dame arsenal.
Serving as Gaines' understudy last season, Lechlitner ranked among the top 10 rookies in the BIG EAST in scoring at 6.3 points per game and added 2.7 assists per night, while her 1.55 assist/turnover ratio in league play was seventh in the conference (and second among freshmen). A member of the BIG EAST All-Freshman Team, she also collected 40 steals, making her one of five Irish players to reach that mark in 2006-07. However, Lechlitner's biggest contributions came when the pressure was at its highest -- she scored 12 points, including two key free throws with 0.5 seconds left in Notre Dame's 62-59 win over California in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And, she canned the game-tying three-pointer with 11 seconds remaining in regulation of an 87-78 overtime loss at South Florida in mid-January.
Lechlitner gained an added benefit during the summer of 2007, when she was named to the USA U19 National Team that rolled to a 9-0 record and the gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was Lechlitner's first USA Basketball selection and the experience she gathered on the international stage should give her even more confidence heading into this season.
"Lech will help run the team and then prepare herself to take over the running of the team when Tulyah graduates," McGraw noted. "She is going to be a much-improved three-point shooter, and even though she was among the conference leaders in assist/turnover ratio, I think that she will get better at that. Her expectations are going be along the lines of running the team. We will see a little more leadership coming out of her, but we do need her to score. She's somebody that is going to be able to score, be solid defensively and help lead the team."
With the loss of Schrader for the season, Allen stepped into the breach and emerged as a dependable scorer, cracking double figures 29 times in 32 games, including 11 20-point games and a career-high 31 points against St. John's. She also chalked up three double-doubles, spotlighted by a 25-point, career-high 13-rebound effort against DePaul, and she became the first Irish player in a decade to string together three consecutive games with at least 25 points. Thus, it was no surprise when the slippery 5-foot-11 veteran was tabbed as a State Farm Coaches' honorable mention All-American, as well as a first-team all-BIG EAST choice. She went on to earn a spot as one of 14 finalists for the USA Basketball U21 World Championship Team during the summer of 2007, and already has been named to the '07-08 State Farm Wade Trophy Preseason List.
"It was great to see Charel come on in the BIG EAST when she decided that we needed her to shoot the ball and she was willing to shoot the ball," McGraw said. "She now understands her role as well as anyone. She's not selfish, but she's going to continue to do what she did last year. One of the key factors for us will be how she and Lindsay play together and play off each other. Charel also is capable of improving her three-point shot and we know she is capable is scoring a lot of points. We certainly want her to shoot a lot, but it's all going to be within the team structure because the balance is going to help us win this year."
While opponents did their level best to try and stop Allen last season, they found that task become even tougher when sophomore Ashley Barlow burst on the scene as a viable alternative scoring option in her rookie season. Filling the role of Notre Dame's top reserve with Allen's insertion to the starting lineup, Barlow did her best imitation of former Detroit Pistons cult hero Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson, coming in and quickly heating up to add an instant spark for the Irish at both ends. The 5-foot-9 Indianapolis product was Notre Dame's second-leading scorer (10.3 ppg.) and rebounder (5.4 rpg.) and tied Allen for seventh in the BIG EAST in steals (1.97 spg.). She held that same conference rank in free throw percentage (.826), while her .328 three-point percentage was good for team-high honors.
A 2006 BIG EAST All-Freshman Team selection, Barlow had 15 double-figure scoring games during her freshman season and pulled down double-digit rebounds twice, including 10 caroms in Notre Dame's second-round NCAA Tournament game against North Carolina. She also posted her first career double-double in her second game as a collegian, registering 19 points and 10 rebounds in an overtime victory over NCAA Sweet 16 qualifier Bowling Green, scoring six of the seven Irish points in the extra session and canning two foul shots with 3.8 seconds left in OT to seal the win. Barlow went on to join her classmate Lechlitner at the USA Basketball Junior National Team Trials in Colorado Springs during the summer of 2007, making her one of five Notre Dame players on this year's roster who boast USA Basketball experience (either trials or competition).
"Ashley is coming off a sensational year," McGraw said. "She was amazing that she could contribute so quickly and in so many different ways. She was a terrific rebounder from the guard spot and could play any number of positions. She's also a smart player, listens well, is very coachable and exceptionally versatile. We would like to see her shoot a little more from the perimeter, and she is going to be able to strictly play the perimeter now that we have a little more size with Lindsey back, which will allow her to face the basket more and play her natural position."
While injuries can be a short-term detriment to both a player and her team, they can turn out to be the proverbial "blessing in disguise" for all parties. That's the hope for Schrader, as the 6-foot-0 junior dons the Notre Dame uniform once again after her 2006-07 season ended before it even began. The ensuing year-long rehabilitation was a combination of pain and frustration, but also led to a great deal of physical and mental maturity that will serve the Bartlett, Ill., native very well as she returns to the rigors of competition. In addition, as she meshes back in with the other returnees, including the talented crop of underclassmen, Schrader will lend even more punch to an already-powerful Irish lineup.
During her freshman season in 2005-06, Schrader wasted little time in asserting herself as one of the top young talents in the BIG EAST, becoming just the second rookie in school history to collect a double-double in her college debut (10 points, 14 rebounds vs. Michigan). A blue-collar, no-nonsense player, she ranked second on the team in scoring (10.5 ppg.) and tops in rebounding (5.4 rpg.) with a solid .443 field goal percentage. She also scored in double figures 14 times, capped off by a career-high 29 points against Boston College in the first round of the '06 NCAA Tournament.
"Lindsay is going to give us that aggressiveness," McGraw noted. "We know she can score, we know she can rebound and we need her to do both of those things. For her, the whole team got better around her so now she will be playing with a much more balanced team. Between her and Charel, the defenses will key on them. There will be that balance of whomever is on that game will shoot more -- it's going to be in the team structure. During her freshmen year, we were out of sync as a team and the one thing she is looking forward to is to get back in the flow of the game and just find a way to win. That's all she wants, and that is the kind of attitude that is going to help us win."
Senior Amanda Tsipis is the other returning veteran on the wing for the Irish. A 5-foot-9 native of Perry, Ohio, Tsipis has been a valuable asset for Notre Dame, due to her strong work ethic, selfless dedication to team success and positive attitude have helped set a tone for her teammates to follow. She has played in 35 games during her first three seasons with the Irish, including a career-high 16 appearances last year when she averaged 0.3 points and 0.1 rebounds per game. Tsipis also is a strong outside shooter and a savvy court veteran who has been able to easily pick up new concepts and put them into practice.
"Amanda is going to be a huge part of our success again this year because she is a great leader in a lot of different ways not always seen on the court," McGraw commented. "She's great in the locker room. She's the first person up on the bench at a timeout to encourage her teammates and she's always positive. She's constantly a team player because she rarely gets to play. She's always willing to sacrifice to give whatever she can to help somebody else get better. She'll do whatever she can at practice or on the bench. She just wants the team to win, she's happy to be a part of it, and we'd be a very different team without her."
One of the problem areas for Notre Dame last season was its perimeter scoring, but with the addition of two talented freshmen, it would appear that question could soon have a definite answer. Becca Bruszewski (last name pronounced broo-SHEFF-skee) grew up only an hour west of South Bend in Valparaiso, Ind., where she was a four-year standout at Wheeler High School and the second runner-up for Indiana Miss Basketball honors in 2007. Standing 6-foot-1, Bruszewski is a versatile wing who is equally adept at firing from long range, attacking the rim, or posting up a smaller defender on the blocks. She averaged a double-double in each of her final three seasons at Wheeler, finishing her prep career with 19.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 2.8 steals per game, as well as a sharp .491 field goal percentage.
A three-time all-state and four-time all-area selection, Bruszewski holds 11 school or Porter County records, including career marks for points (1,808), rebounds (904), blocks (256) and steals (260). She also rang up three triple-doubles during her high school playing days, and was rated as high as 44th in the nation by Dan Olson Collegiate Girls Basketball Report. Bruszewski wrapped up her prep tenure as a member of the '07 Indiana All-Star Team, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in the second game of the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star Series with a game-high 14 points and nine rebounds (Barlow won the same honor in 2006).
"Becca is someone that is very versatile," McGraw said. "She is going to play a lot of different positions. She can rebound, she can score inside and out, she can pass, and do a lot of different things . She also has that mental toughness that we lost when Crystal (Erwin) graduated. Becca will be somebody that will want to mix it up inside and is going to be physical. She is really looking forward to helping us on the rebounding side."
Arriving on campus from Baltimore, Md., Brittany Mallory was a multi-sport standout during her stay at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md., excelling in both basketball and lacrosse. Whether on the hardwood or the grass, Mallory showed incredible toughness and determination on the prep level, battling back from a knee injury at the end of her junior lacrosse season to steer her basketball squad to its first conference title game in eight years.
Like Bruszewski, Mallory was a three-time all-state honoree and four-time all-area choice, peaking at No. 96 in the national prep player rankings by Blue Star Basketball. Mallory averaged 17.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.5 steals per game at McDonogh, ranking second in school history with 1,825 career points. However, her biggest asset is her scoring ability from long range -- she shot 47 percent from the floor as a senior in 2006-07, including a .390 three-point percentage, and averaged 2.1 three-pointers per game throughout her high school career.
"Brittany gives us a three-point weapon," McGraw observed. "As the last-place team in the BIG EAST in three-point shooting last year, we obviously need some help with the three-point shot. Brittany will help us from the outside, since she can shoot the ball very well and is a very smart player. She also will do really well in our Princeton offense because she can read the defense and move without the ball. And, she has a lot of other intangible qualities that are really going to help us."
In much the same pattern as her classmates Gaines and Allen, senior Melissa D'Amico has shown constant, steady improvement throughout her career. As a 6-foot-5 sentinel in the paint, she became a permanent fixture in the Irish starting lineup last season and responded with her best year to date, ranking fourth on the team in scoring (8.0 ppg.) and third in rebounding (4.6 rpg.), coupled with 30 blocked shots (nearly one per game). In addition, the Manorville, N.Y., resident ranked sixth in the BIG EAST with a .528 field goal percentage last season, and perhaps most impressively, she turned her primary weakness into a significant strength, lifting her free throw percentage in one season from .541 to .787 (nearly a 25-percent improvement).
D'Amico charted a career-high 13 double-digit scoring games last season, tying her career high with 20 points (on 8-of-10 shooting) against IUPUI. She also notched a pair of double-doubles against Indiana (15 points, 10 rebounds) and St. John's (10 points, career-high 11 rebounds) while averaging a career-best 20.4 minutes per night.
"We are expecting big things from Mel this year," McGraw stated. "She is going to have a great senior season. She knows what she has to do and learned a lot this past year. She has improved annually and we want this to be her breakout year. She is capable of scoring around the basket and is as good as anyone with her left hand, works on it extremely hard. Overall, she does a really good job of working hard in the offseason and we hope it will translate into a better all-around performance this year."
Sophomore Erica Williamson turned out to be one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2006-07 season for Notre Dame. It might be hard to classify a 6-foot-4 player as overlooked, but that appeared to be the case for Williamson, who was seen as a bit of an unknown quantity coming on to the college scene. That's certainly no longer the case, as the Charlotte, N.C., product was an important contributor off the bench for the Irish during her rookie campaign, ranking among the top 10 freshmen in the conference in scoring (6.1 ppg.) and placing second on the team in rebounding (5.3 rpg.) on the way to a spot on the BIG EAST All-Freshman Team. She also evolved into an imposing shot blocker with 39 rejections (third all-time among Notre Dame freshmen), ranking ninth in the conference in that category (1.26 bpg.).
Williamson's most impressive trait may be the manner in which she seems impervious to pressure situations. Playing against some of the best competition in the nation, the gregarious center rose to the challenge, collecting 12 points and eight rebounds at Connecticut, 12 points and nine rebounds at USC, seven points and seven rebounds at Tennessee, and her first career double-double (11 points, career-high 18 rebounds) in an overtime loss at South Florida -- those 18 rebounds also established a new Notre Dame freshman record.
"Erica ended up playing a lot more than we thought last year just because of the way she improved so dramatically from the beginning of the year to the end," McGraw said. "We got a glimpse of her potential along with the attitude and fearlessness we need her to have around the basket. She can do a lot of things and we are excited about her progress. We would like to see her score a little bit more and be that force on the block, so we can throw the ball inside more consistently. She needs to establish a presence down low on offense."
While freshman Devereaux Peters may be the shortest member of the Irish post brigade at 6-foot-2, she more than makes up for that difference with impressive athleticism, an equally daunting wingspan and a smooth offensive game that features a mix of solid post moves and a strong mid-range jumper. Hailing from Chicago, Ill., and a standout at national power Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill., Peters is a consensus Top 35 player according to every major recruiting service, topped by her No. 21 ranking (fourth among power forwards) from Dan Olson Collegiate Girls Basketball Report. The 2006-07 consensus high school All-American averaged 12.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in her prep career, while shooting an even 60 percent from the floor and helping Fenwick to an astronomical 135-11 (.925) four-year record, including a No. 6 ranking in the final 2007 USA Today Super 25 poll.
Peters' trophy case is filled with awards, highlighted by her '06-07 selections as a McDonald's All-American, a third-team Parade All-American and a third-team USA Today All-USA choice, not to mention a fourth consecutive Street & Smith's honorable mention All-America citation. The reigning Illinois Miss Basketball runner-up, Peters was named the Most Outstanding Player of the '07 Illinois Class 2A Tournament after leading Fenwick to its first state title since 2001. She averaged 15.3 ppg., 8.0 rpg. and 4.7 bpg. with a .621 field goal percentage in the three-game state tourney, including double-doubles in the semifinals and title game.
"Playing a team like North Carolina in last year's NCAA Tournament, we needed a player to block shots, score around the basket and take people off the dribble," McGraw said. "We really needed someone that could play at that that kind of level and certainly Devereaux is that player. As a McDonald's All-American and state champion in Illinois, she understands how important it is for us to have a player like her. She needs to contribute right away and we really hope she can do that in the rebounding and blocking areas. Offensively, she will be fine, but we really need her at the other end first."
Through the years, Notre Dame's scheduling philosophy has been geared toward meeting one goal -- preparing for the postseason. To that end, the Irish have consistently played teams from some of the other top conferences in the country and traveled from coast to coast in an effort to expose themselves to virtually every style of play they might see when the NCAA Tournament tips off in March.
The 2007-08 season should be no different, as Notre Dame could play as many as 13 games against teams that are coming off NCAA Tournament berths in 2007, including up to six Sweet 16 qualifiers and perhaps three-fourths of last year's NCAA Women's Final Four. The cornerstone of the Irish non-conference schedule will be a third appearance in the season-opening Preseason Women's National Invitation Tournament (WNIT), which Notre Dame won back in 2004. The Irish will open the tournament at home against Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 9, and will play at least one additional home game during the "three-game-guarantee" tournament that continues through Nov. 18. Other prominent teams in the WNIT field include: 2007 Final Four participant LSU, 2006 national champion Maryland (a potential semifinal opponent for Notre Dame) and 2005 NCAA runner-up Michigan State.
All told, the Irish will play 16 regular-season home games, with the marquee opponents being the defending NCAA national champion Tennessee (Jan. 5) and the reigning BIG EAST regular-season champion Connecticut (Jan. 27). In fact, Notre Dame is one of only two schools in the country that will play host to both of those traditional powers during the 2007-08 campaign.
Some of the other non-conference highlights for the Irish include: a post-Thanksgiving visit by former BIG EAST rival Boston College (Nov. 24), a home matchup with Michigan for the second time in three years (Dec. 2) and back-to-back road contests at NCAA Sweet 16 participant Bowling Green (Dec. 5) and NCAA regional finalist Purdue (Dec. 8). Notre Dame also should benefit from a non-conference schedule that will feature six of 11 games at home following the Preseason WNIT, while all but one of the remaining road games will be played within a four-hour drive of South Bend.
The BIG EAST tied its own record last year by sending eight teams to the NCAA Tournament, with seven of those squads winning at least once. The conference may be even more powerful this season, making the 16-game regular-season schedule particularly critical.
Once again, Notre Dame will see DePaul as its home-and-home opponent, following last year's three-game series that saw the Blue Demons win twice, including a first-round victory at the BIG EAST Championship on the way to an NCAA Tournament berth. The Irish series with DePaul has been especially close of late, with the teams splitting the past eight regular-season matchups, winning each time on their home court.
Notre Dame's eight-game BIG EAST home schedule also includes contests with three other NCAA Tournament qualifiers from a year ago -- Connecticut (Elite Eight), Marquette (second round) and Pittsburgh (second round). In addition, two '07 Postseason WNIT participants will make their way to South Bend, as Seton Hall (second round) and South Florida (third round) come calling. An up-and-coming Providence squad and the always-difficult challenge from Villanova complete this year's Joyce Center docket.
The premier stop for the Irish on their eight-game BIG EAST road slate will be a Feb. 19 visit to reigning NCAA runner-up Rutgers, as Notre Dame looks for its first victory in Piscataway, N.J., since 2002. Returning NCAA Tournament selections Louisville (second round) and West Virginia (second round) also are on the Irish itinerary for 2007-08, along with trips to Cincinnati, Georgetown, St. John's and Syracuse.
While it would seem likely Notre Dame won't be picked to finish in the BIG EAST's second division this season, the Irish still may fly below the radar of many national observers when the '07-08 campaign tips off in November. It's a position that McGraw not only understands, but relishes.
"We intend to continue earning that national respect every play of every game during the season," she said. "How you compete on a daily basis, and how you carry yourself on and off the court -- that says a lot about your program and the direction it's headed.
"Without question, our expectations will be high this season," McGraw added. "We have a strong focus on those goals because those are the things we can control. As long as we stay committed to meeting and exceeding those goals, the rewards will be there in the end."