Everyone talks to the superstars. But what about the blue-collar players who somehow make the main stage. The career of Becca Bruszewski, Notre Dame's only senior this season, retells the story of why women play the game, a story she shares with Full Court's Mike Siroky.
A basic precept of Hoosier Hysteria and its nationally co-opted March Madness is that players from the state of Indiana have basketball roots deeper and more fertile than the rich black soil that supports the states agriculture.
From the smokestacks of the industrial northwest corner to the southern borders along the Ohio River, basketball is the first religion of Indiana players.
Even with all the history, it is safe to say Becca Bruszewski is the only basketball player from the tiny do map of Wheeler ever to start in an NCAA National Championship Basketball Game.
She did so, of course, as the only senior starter for Notre Dame this season.
In her final game for the Irish, Bruszewski logged 35 minutes, most of them against the load carried by Final Four MVP Danielle Adams, a 6-1 230-pounder (and thats after losing 50 during training). Bruszewski is also 6-1, but slender by comparison.
She had previously battled a horde of 6-foot-5 players in Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson, Tennessee's Kelley Cain and Oklahoma's Nicole Griffin (plus OU's backup center, Joanna McFarland, at 6-4).
Lets face it, Im a big girl, she said. In those games, the foes were even bigger.
So I tried to get around (Adams) or deny the ball to all of them. Positioning is so important. Most of this game is mental, Bruszewski said.
When her senior season arrived, Bruszewski knew it would be her last playing competitive basketball. The precious WNBA spots are still reserved for the All-Americans and for competitive, experienced players from European, Asian and Australian pro leagues.
I dont know if I ever really thought it was possible to make the Final Four, she said. It was the ultimate goal. But I never, ever knew if we could really do it.
As one of the Irish captains, she was chosen as the prestigious Monogram Club Most Valuable Player.
She was the 18th Indiana-born player to join the Irish, the first from Northwest Indiana. As the youngest of four children in her immediate family, she is the only one not to attend Indiana University.
But Bruszewski carried her dreams, and the dreams matured into an attitude.
She acquitted herself quite well, scoring the final points of a 1,148-point career, 22nd in school history; she also had 549 rebounds to her credit.
Despite playing in the contentious, physical area of the floor, she only fouled out once.
|Photo Caption: Becca Bruszewski skies for a rebound against Morehead State.|
|Photo Credit: Courtesy Matt Cashore|
Bruszewski (known affectionately to her teammates and fans as "Bruise") earned 107 career victories, appearing in 136 of 139 games, a shared school record. The only three she missed were due to the flu (one game) and to surgery on her finger (two).
She remembers those missed games, of course.
It was just practice. I was just playing post defense and the ball hit off my finger and broke it.
That injury led to her ultimate mind-set. To play every game as if it were her last, to contend every minute of every game.
As the grind of the season wound down this year, Bruise took her share of injuries and played through them. She was sent to the locker room with a rib injury in the Big East Conference semifinals, but came back out to add cheering support before the games end.
She started the conference championship game.
Three NCAA weeks on, at the Dayton Regional, Bruszewski was again sidelined, this time with a left knee injury. She limped back to the bench and into the game again, to leave only once the game was decided.
Two days later, Bruszewski and the Irish took on top-seeded Tennessee. She played through it with a brace supporting her knee and gave a game-high 37 minutes.
She said the knee brace only threw her off for a little while. And maybe it made me even slower or made them think Id be slower, she said. The strained MCL was, definitely not something I was accustomed to. It made a little more conscious of my legs.
Down went Tennessee. Notre Dame was an Elite Eight champion.
So, next up, at the Final Four, was two-time defending champ UConn of the same Big East conference. Another No. 1 seed. A team that had beaten Bruszewski in every game she played against them, including three already this season, the latest in the Big East Tournament title game, the game before the NCAA tourney started.
I really wanted us to have the mindset we might as well go out and give it every thing, because if its the last time we played, we had to give it all.
Theres that senior urgency. Every game once the NCAAs start is the potential last game.
We were not intimidated of them, Bruszewski said.
We had played them close at our place. We had lost twice at their place. Different types of settings, a variety of all the pros and cons."
But this was a neutral arena and venue, which is what we wanted. I just wanted my time on the court. I dont care what uniforms they wear, what they look like to anyone else. We were going to play our game."
We learned something every time we played them; we learned again, every possession matters. They feed off their defense. They want to drive. So maybe we met them a little further up.
Down went a second top seed. The dream of playing in the national title game, forever being a starter in the NCAA Finals official record book was at hand.
|Photo Caption: Becca Bruszewski rounds the corner on a drive. Bruszewski was never afraid to put the ball on the floor and drive, even against bigger or quicker defenders.|
|Photo Credit: Courtesy Mike Bennett|
Bruszewski's mind spins back to her rookie year. She thought she did not fit in, that shed walk away and walk on somewhere else. It is not an uncommon trait for any freshman, but seemingly more so for women players. All the top teams have players jump aboard the slow, but regular train puling out of the station.
There were the opening runs. The weight-lifting had just started to be phased in for the women at Wheeler, but was full bang at Notre Dame.
Bruszewski was very discouraged. She didnt know where to turn, whom to ask, what to do.
A legend arrived to tell to the rookie. Like Bruszewski, Ruth Riley came from a small rural community a few counties south. She was tall and skinny and had never done weights.
Before she was done, Riley had become the national Player of the Year. She has played in the pros, WNBA and European, ever since. She was the last center before Bruszewski to lead the Irish to a title game.
So here comes Ruth Riley my freshman year. I felt like I was not getting my reps in, even in practice. What she told me was, Hey, I was in the same boat as you. You have got to realize you have to give it your all all the time.
The words stuck. The work ethic improved.
The loneliness shook away, partially because her family was so close and partially because she had joined a rather exclusive extended family.
Along the tournament trails, her mom and dad, siblings, aunts and uncles were there. Every time.
That helps, Bruszewski said. Yes, you do hear them.
The game came to her at her level. It came to her.
Now, for her senior season, a special coach was back. Carol Owen had been the bigs coach when Riley was there. This season, she was back on the bench to work her magic.
She did a really great job, said Bruszewski. It wasnt so much technique, though Owen knows that.
It was more of that mental muscle Bruszewski had engaged for years, had worked to make every move anticipated, teammates' and opponents' alike, to just know where a friend would be if a rebound were had or where a stellar player on the other team came with her moves to Bruszewskis area.
She (Owen) held me accountable for myself. I needed to set the tone. I need to be pulled aside, Bruszewski said. She told me how I play affects the team. She made us more aggressive on defense.
So while she well remembers lessons learned from her freshman start, she also knows what she would tell that freshman now.
How hard the whole thing is. The balance of academics and athletics. College basketball is really a business; if youre not producing, theres someone else there who will, Bruszewski said.
The game is more strategic than physical. Everyone is good on the court. But, instead of trying to outscore them, lock up, defend. Take their weaknesses and turn them into your positives.
Above all, is her personal mantra: You cant take one possession off. Every little possession can decide a game.
Her head coach, Muffet McGraw, had laid all of this out for her, even when Bruszewski did not understand it.
She really pushes you to be mature, be that player, Bruszewski said.
Ultimately of all that misunderstanding, I began to understand it.
So here was the title game. The biggest stage. National cable TV. The decidedly last game for most seniors. The final elimination.
All your goals and expectations are right there, Bruszewski said.
It seemed like I was always playing people bigger and stronger than me. So we had game plans. You knew how to rely on help from your teammates, how the guards could sag off to help, how to meet them [the opponent] early and not let them do what they want to do."
It becomes a lot about positioning. If the girl is bigger, get long as the pass is coming in. Take a hit, take a charge. Every game, you learn how it is being called. Everybody has to adjust. So you adjust quicker.
Bruszewski felt she could set the tone. It was her team.
Seniors feel that panic; this is it.
So, when her team started slowly, she became vocal at a time out.
I couldnt have been more mad," Bruszewski said. I set a tone, told them there was no more waiting. Just play.
The history books will show that the Irish did play, though in the end, their efforts would not be enough. A championship eluded them, but the glory owned only by competitors who give their all would not.
With this segment of her sporting life complete, Bruszewski has reflected a little on the what-ifs. With three older siblings having attended I.U., it seemed a predetermined destination.
Oh, it was automatically in my Top Three, she laughed. I had been in Bloomington a lot, helping them move here there and everywhere. It was comfortable.
But the Lady Hoosiers have never been competitive, even in a weak conference, not to mention on the national stage.
The Big East, it sounds like a clich, but anyone can beat anyone on a given night and I liked that, she said.
Bruszewski will earn her degree in sports marketing, a degree from Notre Dame, which alone carries prestige even without all her basketball achievements.
Women athletes always have focused on the future, on life after the final whistle, much more so than the male players.
Bruszewski has hit all her college