DENVER -- The manner in which Notre Dame's seniors walked off the court Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center told the story of one game. Their bowed heads, slumped shoulders and quick gait amidst the falling confetti were as revealing about the previous 40 minutes of basketball as the rebounds, turnovers and missed field goals spelled out in the box score.
That they walked off a basketball court for the final time as collegians and in this place told a different story, a story coach Muffet McGraw struggled to tell when asked about her seniors after an 80-61 loss against Baylor in the national championship game.
"I was hoping nobody asked that," McGraw said with a smile that seemed to strain like a dam on the edge of collapse. "The waterworks will begin now."
She paused and tried to fight back the prophesied tears, managed one more sentence about how tough it was to see their careers end and then couldn't continue. Like the body language of her players walking off the court, the red in McGraw's face -- a face normally so expressionless in happiness and frustration -- said more than her words could have. The face silently said everything about what Brittany Mallory, Fraderica Miller, Natalie Novosel and Devereaux Peters meant to the program.
"That one actually hurt the most, to see Coach that emotional," Novosel said later. "She cared about it just as much as we did. I knew that already, but just to see the emotion on her face, it's so hard to feel like you disappointed her."
Only these seniors could do everything they had over the past four or five seasons and think one night when so little went right for them could leave McGraw disappointed.
Peters played just 15 minutes in the loss while battling foul trouble; Novosel missed all 11 shots she took from the field and Mallory could barely lift her left arm to hug her coaches as she left the court, the result of an earlier tumble in one of so many largely fruitless double teams against Baylor's Brittney Griner. But one nightmare night doesn't change what they accomplished, or how many hurdles this group beset by injuries and adversity had to clear, to lift Notre Dame to new heights.
"I just think you look at where they started and how they finished and their growth as basketball players, as women,'" Jonathan Tsipis, Notre Dame's associate head coach, said of the seniors' collective legacy. "It's hard to compare classes sometimes, but I think this class is so unique for so many reasons. What I said to Natalie and Brittany [after the game] was, 'You put this program in a place it's never been before, and you sure as heck left it a whole lot better than it was when you first got here.'"
Notre Dame became the first team other than Connecticut or Tennessee to reach back-to-back championship games in more than two decades and the first since Auburn lost three consecutive championship games in a stretch that ended in 1990. And without diminishing what those Tigers teams did, the women's game has changed more in those intervening years; that much was evident every time Griner reached out a long arm to block a shot or when Skylar Diggins freezed Odyssey Sims with a sublime hesitation crossover. To do it in this era, to beat Connecticut twice in the semifinals and Tennessee and Maryland in regional finals, was a bit of history second only to Baylor completing perfection.
With 20 points and no turnovers in 37 minutes, Skylar Diggins was every bit the superstar Tuesday night that she carries herself to be, every bit the face of the program. It was a starring role in desperate need of supporting actors, which is a shame. This was never a team Diggins carried to championship games; it was a team she led, and a team that let her lead it.
No player was more important to bringing Diggins into the fold than Peters. She was there in the crowd when Diggins played her home games for Washington High School -- unless, as was the case on at least one occasion, she couldn't get a ticket for the sold-out games that captivated the community. So it was all the more painful to see Peters struggle to fill the sidekick role alongside Diggins against the Lady Bears. She picked up her first foul before the game was two minutes old and added a second a minute later.
After a stint on the bench, she picked up a third while pursuing an offensive rebound on a teammate's missed layup before halftime. Peters wasn't going to have more luck guarding Griner than anyone else in the country has, but losing her for such long stretches left the Fighting Irish shorthanded and passive.
"It would have been great to see Devereaux play 39 minutes," McGraw said. "But I'm not sure it would have changed a lot."
In some respects, Peters' frustrating night reflected a career of stops and starts, two steps forward and one step back, even if it was injuries, and not fouls, that played the greatest havoc with her time in South Bend. Peters twice tore her ACL during her first three seasons. Like Mallory, who tore her ACL as a sophomore, Peters didn't have to come back this season. For a career punctuated by questions of what could have been, it was cruelly ironic for Peters to end with a game that asked the same question.
"I wouldn't put it in any part of her legacy," Tsipis countered of Peters' difficulty staying on the court. "I think the important part about a legacy with a kid is what they did for your program and the positive things, the bar that they set and the work ethic. Just on the adversity alone, the things that she was able to persevere through in the last five years, it's an amazing tale. For a kid that gets hurt multiple times, it's really easy to say, 'I've got a Notre Dame degree,' and she kept fighting."
Notre Dame kept fighting longer than it could have Tuesday night, as Baylor seemed poised early to turn the night into a lengthy victory parade. But as poorly as things went for the seniors, the Fighting Irish persevered around them, once closing to within three points in the second half as Diggins raced down court in transition. That possession fizzled out as Peters picked up her fourth foul, Sims hit a 3-pointer at the other end and Novosel missed a jumper in reply. And with that, the game slipped away for good and Mallory, Miller, Novosel and Peters made the final walk to the locker room.
"I've watched them since my junior year in high school, since I've been recruited," sophomore Kayla McBride said. "And how much adversity they've come through and how hard they work and how self-motivated they are, it reflects on each and every one of these girls in this room. And that's something special because when you have leaders like that, it's easy to be successful.
"I think the part that hurts the most about this is we couldn't take them out on top. It hurts. It hurts a lot."
A little more than 30 minutes after the end of the game in a locker room rapidly emptying of anyone not wearing Notre Dame colors, Miller, Peters and Mallory beckoned McGraw over and offered a group hug, punctuated with the kind of embarrassed murmurs of self-deprecation and gulping laughter that come when the tears run out.
The journey was at an end for four players who had no idea what was in front of them when they arrived in South Bend.
"We were tied at the hip," Miller recalled of the freshman class she and Novosel shared. "We went everywhere together. We learned the campus together, walked to class together. We were just so excited to be here, so excited to be living out our dream of playing college basketball. From the moment we stepped on campus to the first day of practice, the word I can say is excited.
"We were excited to start something new."
Miller, Novosel, Peters and Mallory finished that work Tuesday night. It wasn't the ending any of them wanted, but they walked off the court together having lived out those dreams in a way few ever have.
It was a night lost, but only a night.