DAYTON, Ohio — Notre Dame senior Becca Bruszewski climbed what was, appropriately, a blue and gold ladder to cut a piece of net for herself after helping lead the Fighting Irish to the Dayton Regional championship over No. 1 seed Tennessee on Monday night.
Bruszewski cut the net, and then very gingerly eased herself down the ladder and back onto the court where she and the Fighting Irish delivered the school’s first NCAA women’s basketball Final Four berth since the national championship season of 2001.
“I was just making sure nothing else happened,” said Bruszewski of her descent.
Despite wearing a knee brace and an over-sized Tennessee defender the entire game, Bruszewski scored 13 points and battled for eight rebounds.
“This is a moment I’ll never forget,” the misty-eyed Bruszewski said during the raucous Irish celebration. “It’s something I’ve always wanted. Our team played amazing. Both ends of the floor produced and we withstood Tennessee’s runs.”
Bruszewski’s status for the game against Tennessee was questionable after she suffered a knee injury in Notre Dame’s 78-53 whipping of Oklahoma on Saturday in the regional semifinal.
By the time Notre Dame wrapped up its stunning 73-59 victory against the eight-time national champion Volunteers, there was no question about Bruszewski’s toughness, and the toughness of the entire Irish squad.
“If you want to make some money with this team, you have to either have the ice concession or the knee brace concession,” McGraw said. “You could see (Fraderica Miller) at the end of the game, she could hardly walk, and she wanted to get out there and try and play. Becca’s on one leg, Natalie Novosel is on one leg. They’re icing up after every practice.
“Becca won’t quit,” McGraw continued. “She is absolutely relentless. She is fearless. She doesn’t miss a beat in practice. She had the rib injury in the Big East Tournament in the (DePaul) game. She couldn’t breathe, but she wanted to go back in the game. She came back the next game and took a charge on her first play. She is the most mentally tough player I think I’ve ever seen. She can handle any kind of injury and adversity and keep on going.”
Bruszewski, a former Wheeler High School star, credited her upbringing with toughening her up.
“Every game we’re undersized,” Bruszewski said of taking on the taller and more physical Volunteers. “I think it was growing up the youngest of four. I’ve been fighting my whole life, whether it was for the last piece of pizza, or in a pick-up game outside. I have a lot of drive, the will to win. I never want to lose, no matter how big my opponent is. I want to dominate. You can’t flinch if you want to win.”
McGraw said the toughness Monday night started with Bruszewski.
“Becca coming into the game, the whole team rallied around her, not knowing if she was going to play or not,” McGraw said. “We got the brace for her knee this morning. It felt good at the shoot-around, and she was able to go, and that just gave everybody a lift.”
Irish assistant coach Carol Owens said that Irish frontliners played a gritty game against a rugged Tennessee crew that talked of having an advantage in height and physical play.
“We talked about being tough, and Becca’s probably the pinnacle of that,” Owens said. “We never let them off the hook in practice, and we’ve had a lot of experience in the Big East helping us in these areas, not being intimidated by height, and using our speed, and just being tough and playing smart defense. I’m proud of all of them, especially Becca, because she’s been the leader all along.”
Bruszewski said that there was never a question that she wouldn’t play.
“My team needed me,” Bruszewski said. “Just knowing that potentially this could have been my last game … I had to play for my team.”
Notre Dame was not ranked in the top 10 until the last week of January, but now the Irish find themselves in the Final Four.