On St. Patrick’s Day, it seems appropriate to write about the success Notre Dame has had in the NCAA tournament … particularly at the expense of the Big 12.
If seeds hold into the Kansas City region, the No. 2 seed Irish will be in the heart of Big 12 territory with the potential of facing two teams from the Jumbo Dozen. And not to panic fans of No. 1 Nebraska or No. 3 Oklahoma, but … if you don’t already know, there is some gory history here.
Notre Dame hasn’t just upset Big 12 teams before. It’s handed those teams among the most gut-wrenching, heartbreaking losses their programs have experienced. We’re talking “still-remember-it-and-feel-ill-30-years-later” kind of losses.
Now, admittedly, sometimes this history stuff is sort of overblown by, um, people like me. The Notre Dame players who put the dagger in Texas Tech in 1998 are not the same who did it to Kansas State in 2003 or to Oklahoma in 2008. But what is the same for all of those Irish wins: coach Muffet McGraw.
She always has that impish grin and the same kind of Philly-native wise-cracking humor as UConn’s Geno Auriemma. And she and her staff have game-planned well in the Big Dance and at times overachieved. A Big 12 team has been Notre Dame’s victim four times, and each one was hard for that team and the league.
If you’re already sweating, Husker fans, about a potential matchup with the Nos. 1-2 seeded teams in KC, then you might want to stop reading now … lest you start seeing evil leprechauns in your sleep. And you probably need to toss out that box of Lucky Charms, because you’re not going to want that for breakfast. If you feel like eating at all.
Oh, so you’re not superstitious? Sure, fine, whatever. You’ve been warned. The bottom line is, all four times the Irish have faced a Big 12 team with a better seed than them in the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame has pulled the upset. All four have been in the second round, three of them have been on the Big 12’s teams home floor.
Once would be just random. Twice, an interesting coincidence. Three times, getting creepy. Four times? There is really something to this luck of the Irish.
But you know, it hasn’t been luck. It’s been Notre Dame preparing and executing well. It’s been the Irish making the favorite team uncomfortable from the start and keeping it that way. Here’s the rundown of the Irish making Big 12 stew:
1997 Second Round: No. 6 Notre Dame 86, No. 3 Texas 83, in Austin, Texas: It was the first season of the Big 12, and the Longhorns had finished tied for second in the league. They were beaten in the Big 12 tourney semifinals by Colorado, but still earned home-court advantage by being one of the top 16 overall seeds when that was the tournament’s set-up (before predetermined sites).
This was the Beth Morgan-Katryna Gaither Irish team that propelled itself all the way to the Final Four in Cincinnati that season. The Irish upended a Texas squad led by center Angela Jackson and guard Danielle Viglione. (There was also a player for the Longhorns then who, when you see her name, it will make you think she had to be a made-up character from a Molly Ivins book. But she was real: Angie Jo Ogletree from Panhandle, Texas.)
At any rate, the Irish beat Memphis in their first-round game at the Erwin Center that year, then knocked off host Texas. In the regional in South Carolina, first Notre Dame beat Alabama, then benefited from No. 5 seed George Washington having taken out No. 1 seed North Carolina. Then, the Irish beat GW for the program’s first Final Four berth. There, Notre Dame lost to eventual champion Tennessee in the national semifinals.
Meanwhile, Texas went on a downward slide after that loss to the Irish, going 33-31 in the Big 12 over the next four seasons.
1998 Second Round: No. 9 Notre Dame 74, No. 1 Texas Tech 59, in Lubbock, Texas: This was supposed to be the Raiders’ year to return to the Final Four, but it didn’t work out at all the way they expected.
Texas Tech had gone 15-1 in the Big 12 regular season, then won the league tournament in Kansas City. And the path was set: Tech was an early-round host and a regional host. All the Raiders had to do was win four consecutive home games, and they were back in Kansas City for the Final Four.
But Notre Dame stopped the Tech express almost in its tracks. Tech won its first-round game in Lubbock Municipal Coliseum, but then was overwhelmed by the Irish in the second round. The team that started Alicia Thompson, Angie Braziel, Rene Hanebutt, Julie Lake and Melinda Schmucker had to endure the agony of not advancing to a regional Tech was hosting.
The AP wire photo that moved showed the Tech kids doing their obligatory “Guns Up!” postgame salute to the crowed while bawling their heads off. Former coach Marsha Sharp will tell you it was her toughest loss, especially because then she had to plead with the Tech fans to still come to the regional to watch Notre Dame meet Purdue and Louisiana Tech face Alabama.
Bless their hearts (as they say in Texas), the fans indeed did fill the old arena to watch Louisiana Tech beat Purdue and win the trip to the Final Four that Texas Tech thought it would be making. The Texas Tech players, however, didn’t want to be near the arena for this regional. Hanebutt told me that if she’d had to swim through a lake full of alligators to escape the pain of being in Lubbock during that regional, she would have done it.
Meanwhile, although Notre Dame lost the Sweet 16 game to rival Purdue … guess who was a freshman center on that Irish team getting valuable NCAA tournament experience that would in handy later? Of course, that was Ruth Riley.
2003 Second Round: No. 11 Notre Dame 59, No. 3 Kansas State 53, in Manhattan, Kan.: This was the only one of these four games that I was actually present for, and I’m not BS-ing you: I had felt sure going into it that K-State, despite being the No. 3 seed and at home, was going to lose.
I even wrote a preview story for the Kansas City Star that said, “Watch out for Notre Dame, a very dangerous No. 11 seed.”
Behind Riley’s MVP performance, the Irish had won the 2001 NCAA title. In 2003, Alicia Ratay was the only holdover starter from that 2001 team. The Irish also had young sophomore standout Jacqueline Batteast, a South Bend native, on that 2003 squad.
She, however, had two utterly awful shooting performances at Bramlage Coliseum. In the first-round upset of No. 6 Arizona, Batteast went 1 of 16. In the second-round upset of K-State, she was 1 of 10. Yeah, the Irish advanced to the Sweet 16 as the No. 11 seed despite the fact that their leading scorer that season went 2 of 26 in their early-round games. How nutty is that?
The chief heroes in the K-State upset were La’Tania Severe with 17 points, Courtney LaVere with 14 and Ratay with 12.
I’ve always said that Stanford in 1997, when the Cardinal lost for the third consecutive year in the Final Four, had the saddest locker room I’ve ever been in. But K-State in 2003 would be a pretty close second.
This was a team that felt enormous obligation to the 11,500-plus fans who came out to see them play that night. The Wildcats thought they’d let everyone down. K-State’s starters had logged lots of minutes – all were averaging over 30 a game _ that season because there wasn’t much on the bench. Laurie Koehn had missed 10 games due to a foot injury. But she was actually the Wildcat who played the best against Notre Dame, hitting seven 3-pointers and scoring 23 points.
Notre Dame’s zone and tenacious competitiveness got the Irish that victory; it was a very impressive triumph for McGraw and the Irish. It was, however, an emotionally devastating loss for K-State; the spring afterward was when relationships between some of the players and the coaching staff took a bad turn and became permanently fractured.
Rarely in my reporting career have I seen one loss do so much long-term damage to a program … although I know that might sound odd when you think that K-State still won a ton of games the next two seasons and returned to the tournament both years. But … the issues that bubbled to the surface in the aftermath of that loss never really did get resolved.
Koehn, Nicole Ohlde, Kendra Wecker and Megan Mahoney – who’d gone to the Sweet 16 in 2001 – would go no further than the NCAA’s second round the rest of their careers.
Notre Dame moved on to the regional semifinal in Dayton where the Irish fell to Purdue. But just getting that far made that a pretty amazing season for the Irish.
2008 Second Round: No. 5 Notre Dame 79, No. 4 Oklahoma 75, OT, in West Lafayette, Ind.: The Sooners were a victory away from being the host team of the regional that was back in Oklahoma City, but the Irish would be the ones who ended up playing in the Ford Center.
That’s because of their second-round victory that will always be known in Irish lore as “The Charel Allen Show.” Her 35 points against OU were a career high, and she also led the team in rebounds (six). Courtney Paris played well for the Sooners – 24 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks _ but it wasn’t enough.
Then OU coach Sherri Coale – like Sharp once did – had to work at convincing OKC fans to come out to the regional even though the Sooners wouldn’t be there. To their credit, they did. Notre Dame then lost to eventual champ Tennessee.
So … you may be wondering if a Big 12 school has actually “paid back” the Irish in the NCAA tournament. The answer is sort of: In 2000, Texas Tech beat Notre Dame in the regional semifinals. But it would have been nearly impossible to really get consolation for what had happened in 1998.
At any rate, there’s no rational reason to suspect that the Irish are any more prone to wreaking havoc with the Big 12 than they are teams from other leagues. Still, if you’re a Sooners or Huskers fan, you might start looking for a four-leaf clover should your team meet Notre Dame.