Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Sue Bird remembers the most pivotal moment in UConn’s 2001 Final Four matchup vs. Notre Dame.
I’ve never watched any tape from the 2001 semifinal game against Notre Dame. I never will.
I know how it ends and I don’t like it.
It was a game with a lot of lead up. Notre Dame had beaten us (UConn) for the first time in history earlier that season on the Fighting Irish’s home court. We, in turn, beat them by one point in the Big East championship game on our court just weeks later. I hit the game-winning buzzer beater.
The series was split 1-1 going into the NCAA tournament.
The regular season loss to Notre Dame was just one of two in an up-and-down season. (At UConn, losing two games qualifies as up and down.) We had also lost two of our best players — Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova — to injury just before the tournament. Shea, at the time, was really the backbone of our team. The way she played, the way she led — she was the prototypical UConn senior. When she got hurt in the first half of the Big East final, we only had one week to craft a new identity. Still, there were a lot of expectations with our team. We’d won the national championship the year before, and we had an amazing freshman class, which included Diana Taurasi.
You choose to go to UConn because you want to win — you want that pressure. We all wanted a national championship.
We knew we were going to have to go through Notre Dame again to get there.
There’s a metaphor Coach Auriemma referenced often, and turns out, it’s how I felt going into that game: You know how, when you’re a kid and you have a math test coming up, you study all week? When you walk into that classroom, you feel really good. You feel confident. The opposite happens when you’ve crammed; you walk into the classroom like, Oh, shit. I hope they have the questions on there that I know. Our team felt like the former. We had a game plan. We felt confident.
I’ve been fortunate enough to play in a lot of big games. I’ve won some. I’ve lost some. Generally, I never feel overly nervous or anxious. I always sleep at night. I wake up and go to work.
It was business as usual for us that day.
The first half really played out as perfectly as we could’ve imagined. We executed our game plan, particularly on defense. They had a player, Ruth Riley, who we really had to pay a lot of attention to. We had prepared to stop her. We double-teamed her, focused on our rotations and minimized what we gave up.
Everything was playing out perfectly. We were able to capitalize on the offensive end. Maria Conlon, a freshman, came in and gave us really big minutes. I hit a three to open the game. Diana didn’t shoot particularly well, but I wasn’t worried about that. She was the kind of player who could miss her first 10 shots and it wouldn’t matter — she would hit the next 10.
We had control.
Then came the shift: Alicia Ratay hit a three-pointer going into halftime, cutting our lead from 15 points to 12. Our coaches were not happy in that halftime locker room. We were up 15, and then you give up that three at the end! Talk about a momentum swing.
At the start, it was anybody’s game to win. Come the second half, that was our game to lose.
It sounds silly, but small plays like hitting a three going into the half and cutting the lead can turn the tide. It’s just one play and it’s just three points, but looking back, it was purely a game of momentum. When we had it, we went up big. When they got it, they took advantage and did the same.
The second half quickly got away from us. We started to panic. We rushed our game and we got caught up.
It wasn’t until after the last media timeout — with about two minutes remaining — when I realized we might lose. Diana had fouled out. You could just sense that we could not get control again. I looked up at the scoreboard. It was going to take something close to a miracle.
The miracle didn’t come.
I’ve blocked so many details out about that game. I don’t even remember the crowd.
But I remember that three.
There were a lot of tears in that locker room. There were also a lot of curse words. We had that game, and we lost it. We gave it away.
All of us hung out together in the hotel that night. The only people you really want to be around in a moment like that is each other. There was a senior walk-on, Marci Czel. She didn’t take her uniform off until three or four in the morning. As a senior, she didn’t want it to end.
The next day we left St. Louis. It was silent on the bus, silent on the plane.
I know for a fact none of us watched the championship game that year.
That loss to Notre Dame is 100 percent, without a doubt, the reason we went undefeated and won the national championship the next year, my senior year. I won a national championship my sophomore year as well. Would I prefer to have three in a row? Absolutely. But sometimes things play out the way they do for a reason. If we had won that semifinal against Notre Dame, maybe we don’t go undefeated that next year. Maybe we don’t win a national championship. Maybe that 2002 team doesn’t go down as one of the best ever.
And we were one of the best. Ever.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.