Women's Hoops Throws Scare Into Irish

Notre Dame obviously wasn't paying much attention. The #22-ranked and defending national champion Irish obviously had no idea that this year's West Virginia women's basketball squad resembles last year's only in name. Only when they went down early 7-2 to the Mountaineers, did they get a clue.

Not only did they get a clue, they stole a few from the Mountaineers. While the Irish were matched or out-hustled and outplayed by West Virginia in nearly every category, the bigger, deeper Irish stole the Mountaineer's pot of golden free throws and rebounds to escape with a 72-63 victory in South Bend Tuesday evening.

The game story was set early on when West Virginia jumped to a 7-2 lead on back-to-back-to-back baskets by Yolanda Paige, Sherell Sowho and Kate Bulger. Notre Dame made the mistake of opening the game with a zone defense, leaving the Mountaineer hot-shots open to do what they do best: drain baskets from the outside.

The surprise attack continued as Kate Bulger drilled five more (including her 65th three of the season), maintaining the lead at 12-7. Muffett McGraw, apparently taken aback by the fact that this was not a Mountaineer team of yore, called timeout to switch the defense to man-to-man.

It worked. The taller Irish were able to take advantage of West Virginia's less-than-spectacular post game. As a bonus, all-Big East player Alicia Ratay woke up from an early slumber. Ratay scored six in a four minute 13-2 run that gave the Irish a lead they would never surrender at 23-14.

The Irish defense took over, able to out-rebound the Mountaineers by a two-to-one margin in the first half and survive Mountaineer quick spurts that would close the game to as close as four but never getting closer. Notre Dame was able to stretch that advantage to 34-21 on flubbed breaks and missed second-chance shots by the Mountaineers, though Yolanda Paige was able to key a quick 5-0 run to make the score 26-34 at the half.

As I said, the Mountaineers were out-rebounded 29-15 at the half. That spelled trouble, as rebounding has been one of two big keys for Mountaineer wins this year. The other has been getting to the line. West Virginia was unable to get to the line much in the first half, only four times to Notre Dame's 10. The Mountaineers made one of those shots, the Irish eight.

The rebounding margin closed somewhat in the second half, while the free throws went a little bit further in Notre Dame's favor. In addition, Irish depth wore away the Mountaineers, who only used a seven-player rotation. Somehow, though, the adrenaline, the heart, whatever, of Carey's "refuse to lose" Mountaineers came through.

Ratay started the second half like she would solely light up the Mountaineers and make the game another Irish runaway. She seven points in the first three minutes, expanding the lead to 41-32 after some hopeful buckets by Sowho and Mary Grace Carson.

The Mountaineer tide began to turn after the first media timeout at 15:51. An ailing Bulger and Sowho hit back-to-back threes to close the score to 41-38, but the clutch Ratay responded with a three of her own to make it 44-38. Notre Dame managed to hold the lead around six for the next four minutes while drawing key fouls on Sowho, Eartha White, and Brandi Batch.

Bulger managed to close the lead to four on a conventional three point play with 11:20 left, but the Irish went back to work, this time with Ratay and Katy Flecky getting them to the charity stripe on three separate occaisions. The score opened up again to 59-48, with Batch, White, and Sowho in foul trouble (four each). White fouled out at the 8:00 mark.

For some reason, it didn't seem to bother West Virginia. Sowho came back and nailed three free throws, followed by a field goal by Paige and another free throw by Batch. The game, suddenly, was within three at 59-56 with 4:44 left. But, Alicia Ratay, who for some reason decided to become all-world in this game, responded with another three. That was the closest West Virginia would get as Sowho and Carson would foul out and Notre Dame went on to the nine point win.

The Mountaineers were led by some gutsy play by a sick Kate Bulger. She hit her season average of 17 tonight on 6-16 shooting, including three treys, her 65th, 66th, and 67th of the season. She was followed by Brandi Batch, who scored her 1,000th point tonight and finished the game with 14 on 4-12 shooting (6-8 FT) and six rebounds.

Yolanda Paige also had 14 points on 6-11 shooting, and she dished a game-high eight assists. Sherell Sowho started slow, but wound up with a good 13 point performance on 4-14 shooting. Eartha White and Mary Grace Carson had two points each, with six and seven rebounds, respectively, and Zsophia Horvath came off the bench briefly to hit a free-throw for one point.

West Virginia, as stated, matched or outplayed Notre Dame in nearly every category. West Virginia shot 36% from the field, 22-61, while Notre Dame shot 37%, 20-54. The Mountaineers shot 5-11 from beyond the arc, 46% to 36%, 5-14 for the Irish. They kept the turnovers down, 14 to Notre Dame's 17.

The tale(s) of the tape lie within the size of the Irish: Notre Dame outrebounded West Virginia 47 to 35. They went to the free throw line 12 more times, making 13 more shots (27 of 35) while fouling out three Mountaineers. And, the Irish blocked nine West Virginia shots, some being "easy" shots inside.

Of course, the all-world play of Alicia Ratay didn't hurt, either. Ratay went 8-17 from the floor, 4-9 from beyond the arc and 11-13 from the stripe for a blazing 31 points. That was almost 50% of the total number of Mountaineer points on the evening. Needless to say, she lead the Irish in scoring and also managed to grab six boards.

She was followed by Ericka Haney, who scored 15 on 5-14 shooting and also grabbed down six rebounds. Le'Tania Sever had 12 points and led the Irish with nine rebounds. Katy Flecky came off the bench to draw several of the key Mountaineer fouls, scoring the majority of her eight points from the line. Kelsey Wicks had four, and Theresa Borton had two. Interestingly, Wicks, with three, was the only Notre Dame player with less than six rebounds.

What a shame, yet what a great performance by the Mountaineers. Slow starters all season, they jumped right on top of the Irish and looked like they had them down for the count early, and,, despite being battered, bruised, and tired by the bigger team, they were unintimidated and never gave up - signs of life that had gone questionable as recently as the Boston College game a week ago.

I guess that's the funny thing about "transition" years sometimes - it can get so frustrating when you see a team that you feel could do so much more, yet it's so very fulfilling to see all of the great things they have accomplished in such a short time.

#22 Notre Dame advances to 18-7, 12-2. This makes the game at Syracuse this Saturday afternoon that much more important. After starting strong, the Orange are now 14-10 and in basically the same position as the Mountaineers. A win would give the Mountaineers an outside shot at a WNIT bid, if paired with wins in the Big East Tournament, while a loss would hurt tournament seeding and make the postseason a very distant possibility. Look at me, talking postseason. Who would have thought it? Right now, let's just focus on this: West Virginia, now 14-11 (6-8) is on it's way back to the Big East tournament and is looking at its first winning season in years. Who could ask for anything more?

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