It has been a long season in South Bend, Indiana. The longest of seasons, in fact. And unless Notre Dame makes a miracle run in the ACC tournament, that season isn't likely to extend beyond the first week of March.
So down two points late in fourth quarter Sunday on the road against No. 19 Florida State, what was left to play for? In Sam Brunelle's case, as she hit her seventh 3-pointer of the day to give the Fighting Irish a lead in a game in which they never again trailed, the answer was simple.
Whether it's the immediate future as the postseason begins or a slightly longer view, plenty of her peers around the country know where Brunelle was coming from en route to earning espnW national player of the week. They understand it is final-exam time for freshmen on the court.
There is room for the youngest among us in March. Just ask Maryland, which won a national title in 2006 thanks in no small part to freshmen Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman. The current Terrapins might not have needed brilliance from Ashley Owusu to roll over Wisconsin and Minnesota this past week, but the freshman who leads the team in assists and scores in double digits this season will have a lot to say about how close they come to returning to the Final Four.
Symbolized by the injury that sidelined Stanford's Haley Jones, the nation's No. 1 recruit, this year's freshman class started slowly. It is doing its best to hit its stride at the right time.
Few players were better this past week than Texas freshman Celeste Taylor, who scored 20-plus in valuable bracketology wins against TCU and rival Oklahoma. And while Tennessee's Jordan Horston, the nation's No. 2 recruit, has struggled at times this season with her shooting efficiency, how many players hit a bigger shot this past week than the freshman's floater with less than a second to play that ultimately beat Auburn on Sunday?
South Carolina's Zia Cooke, quiet in a win against Texas A&M on Sunday but brilliant a week ago in a win against Kentucky, joins perpetual double-double classmate Aliyah Boston in giving seniors Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan someone to lead.
Similarly brilliant a week ago and quiet this week, UCLA's Charisma Osborne will have everything to say about how many more games senior Michaela Onyenwere gets to play.
But for at least a week, the best week of Notre Dame's season, none of them matched Brunelle, who finished with 25 points, four rebounds and four assists in the win at Florida State and 23 points and nine rebounds in a win against North Carolina three days earlier.
Ranked sixth among this season's freshman class by ESPN Hoopgurlz, Brunelle now leads all ACC freshmen with six games of at least 20 points. That includes three such performances in the past four games (and she had 15 in the other game, a win against Syracuse).
Rather than wilting under the load of playing almost 34 minutes per game while dealing with the grind that is the ACC, she is closing the season as the kind of player who wanted the ball for the big shot Sunday -- who called for it even before Marta Sniezek sent it her way.
Backpedaling to the defensive end after she hit it, she pumped a fist in celebration. Perhaps as much at surviving the past four months as 40 minutes against the Seminoles.
She wasn't the only one.
Coach Muffet McGraw drew an undue amount of attention earlier this season when the mental toll of a season's struggles showed during a postgame news conference. The progress showed Sunday.
"So many good things," McGraw told her team in the locker room before expressing her final thought with the equivalent of a full-body fist pump. "We are on a roll."
There won't be a third consecutive appearance in the national championship game, a second national title in three years or an eighth trip to the Final Four in the past 10 seasons. There is instead an opening-day game in the ACC tournament, meaning the Irish would need to win five games in five days to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament -- their only viable path at 13-17.
But there is also the future. And in college basketball, whether it's what happens in the next few weeks or next season, the freshmen are the future. Sam Brunelle looks ready.
Also considered: Bella Alarie, Princeton; Mariella Fasoula, Vanderbilt; Lexi Gordon, Texas Tech; Haley Gorecki, Duke; Anastasia Hayes, MTSU; Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon; Satou Sabally, Oregon; Jasmine Walker, Alabama.
Previous winners: Lindsey Pulliam, Northwestern (Feb. 24); DJ Williams, Coastal Carolina (Feb. 17); Kiah Gillespie, Florida State (Feb. 10); Naz Hillmon, Michigan (Feb. 3); Tyasha Harris, South Carolina (Jan. 27); Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon (Jan. 20); Ja'Tavia Tapley, Arizona State (Jan. 13); Rhyne Howard, Kentucky (Jan. 6); Kaila Charles, Maryland (Dec. 30); Charli Collier, Texas (Dec. 23); Ashley Joens, Iowa State (Dec. 16); Megan Walker, UConn (Dec. 9); Dana Evans, Louisville (Dec. 2); Jaelyn Brown, Cal (Nov. 25); Aari McDonald, Arizona (Nov. 18); Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon (Nov. 11)