Tough end for Irish's stellar seniors

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For a time Tuesday night, there was reason to believe.

Down by double digits before it even had time to settle in against Connecticut in Tuesday night's NCAA title game, Notre Dame tried to find footing to escape an early hole in the first half. A Kayla McBride jumper here and a Michaela Mabrey 3-pointer there, and instead of another rout for the Huskies, a competitive, enthralling, crisply played game broke out at Bridgestone Arena.

With a little more than three minutes left before halftime, Connecticut's Moriah Jefferson accelerated into the lane and tried to get off a shot. Notre Dame senior Ariel Braker slid in front of her and absorbed the contact as Jefferson went airborne. Neither player got a call, but the challenge appeared to play a role in what proved to be an errant shot.

Braker picked herself off the floor and watched Mabrey hit a 3-pointer at the other end to cut the score to 37-30.

A few minutes later, the Fighting Irish pulled within five.

A win seemed once again possible. Not probable, perhaps, but possible.

It wasn't. Connecticut took a 45-38 lead to the locker room. The Fighting Irish never got any closer.

Maybe injured All-American Natalie Achonwa would have made all the difference. Maybe not.

But if you want to try to argue that Notre Dame lost the game, you're missing the performance Connecticut came up with to win it. The Huskies earned their 79-58 win and record ninth title. The Fighting Irish were not the better team.

Four times this Irish senior class reached the Final Four. Three times it reached the final game. But on each occasion, the confetti fell on someone else. This was the final time for Achonwa, Braker and McBride, the most successful senior class in the history of Notre Dame women's basketball.

Skylar Diggins' arrival signaled the start of a new era in South Bend, Ind. This group of seniors made it a dynasty.

"I think they changed the culture, the expectation level," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said after Tuesday's loss. "I think they set the bar really high. They've achieved so much in four years, and all of them have contributed a great deal to it in so many ways, on and off the court, with leadership and the basketball part, as well.

"But it's going to be a really hard class to let go of. This was a real emotional one for me, and this group has really meant a lot to me personally, too."

McBride went out shooting, which is as it should be. Terrific in the first half, she couldn't get a clean look or much help in the second. Still, she finished with 21 points and five rebounds in 39 minutes, one more 20-point effort in a career full of them in big games.

Achonwa could only watch, unable to get the rebounds and points that she piled up throughout the season and lead from the front when things started to go wrong.

But if you want to understand why Notre Dame won't see a senior class like this again for a long time, start with the player who wasn't an All-American, whose future won't include professional basketball or lines in the Notre Dame record book. The one who stepped into the lane as Jefferson approached.

Four knee surgeries after she started playing basketball, Braker finished playing the sport Tuesday. She totaled two points and four rebounds in 19 minutes, not a line that will live in many memories -- not nearly the line she had in playing such an instrumental role against Baylor in the regional final. It was more of a line than her body ought to have allowed.

"She's a player who has literally sacrificed her body for this program and this team," Notre Dame associate head coach Carol Owens said. "She does all the little things, and I think that's what makes us such a great team -- because we have players that understand their role. She understands it very well. She's a piece of our puzzle, and she's fought through a lot of injuries and all of that, and has always been able to step up and give us her best."

Throughout the tournament, Owens would give Braker a countdown, tell her she just had five more games or three more games to get through before she could finally let her body rest.

"I mean, I'll definitely be done with basketball after this," Braker said the day before the final. "But obviously it's worth it. We've made it to the Final Four all four years, so obviously I don't mind. I just don't have legs left."

As much as this senior class has won -- regular-season and conference tournament titles in the Big East and ACC, a perfect regular season and all those wins against Connecticut that made the series the marquee rivalry in the sport -- it always had to struggle. It finished its run with one of its own on the bench and another with a battered body, but it began with McBride being forced to watch the 2011 championship-game loss against Texas A&M after she was suspended midway through that season for reasons that were never made public.

Four years on, there isn't a better ambassador for the college game than the guard from Erie, Pa., the soft-spoken player with the sheepish smile who her coach nonetheless called an "assassin" on the court.

"I honestly don't think I would be where I am right now if it wasn't for that," McBride said this weekend of her freshman suspension. "I credit my support system, I credit Notre Dame, I credit my coaches, my teammates. It was something that I had to learn, it was a life lesson. ...

"I think it increased my work ethic, and I think I was in the gym more than I have ever been. It just fueled my fire, and I don't think I would be here right now without that."

And Notre Dame wouldn't have been here without her. Without Achonwa. Without Braker.