The magical March Madness run for Brittany Mallory and her University of Notre Dame teammates ended Tuesday evening. In an exciting national championship game in Indianapolis, Texas A&M got a huge individual performance and made a couple more key plays down the stretch to earn a 76-70 win and the 2011 title.

Despite the loss, Mallory had a stellar season and will carry a life-time of memories from the experience.  The former McDonogh School standout played a key role for Notre Dame and coach Muffet McGraw throughout the season, and her contributions in March helped the Fighting Irish to reach the women’s Final Four.

It’s the second time in the last several years that an IAAM player had the rare opportunity to play in the national title game. Angel McCoughtry (St. Frances Academy; WNBA’s Atlanta Dream) led Louisville to its first-ever Final Four appearance before suffering a loss to Connecticut in the 2009 finals.

Mallory’s former high school coach Tom Gizzi, now an assistant coach at Loyola University, was in Indy to watch his former player.

“She’s one of the toughest athletes I have ever coached in 24 years of coaching boys and girls. Watching her succeed on a national stage is truly one of the highlights of my coaching career,” said Gizzi, who watched Mallory as a senior lead the Eagles to the 2007 IAAM A finals.  “From the moment I first met her as a rising ninth-grader to now, it’s been a tremendous success story.”

Mallory spent her first two years at Notre Dame as a role player, getting limited minutes. Then it was a year recouping from a second ACL surgery. After scoring over 1,800 points at McDonogh, and always being the go-to player, it was not the college career she had envisioned. However, all the hard work finally paid off as she was named a captain in preseason and went on to start all but four games, averaging 7.1 points in 27 minutes of playing time.

All the years of rec ball, travel ball, high school games, AAU tournaments, pick-up games and countless hours in the gym finally culminated with an exciting trip through March Madness, as Notre Dame earned a No. 2-seed in the women’s tourney. The Irish defeated Utah, 67-54, and then ousted Temple, 77-64 in the opening rounds.

Then Notre Dame pounded Oklahoma, 78-53, in the Sweet Sixteen as the senior Mallory had her biggest shooting game of the season, hitting six 3-pointers and putting up a team-high 20 points. However, up next was an obstacle known as Tennessee, a team Notre Dame had never beaten, going 0-20 over the years.

The Irish finally broke the spell with a 73-59 decision over the No. 1 seeded Lady Vols, 73-59, as Mallory played a key role, scoring 10 points to go along with her trademark toughness and defense. Most thought the run would end there as UConn was waiting for Notre Dame in Indianapolis.

The Huskies had already beaten Notre Dame three times this season in Big East Conference play. UConn had the swagger as two-time defending champs and as a program that had lost one contest over the course of three seasons, including an NCAA record 90-game win streak.

After an extremely physical first half, things did not look good for the Irish, trailing by six points and Mallory in the locker room after injuring her shoulder while sprawled on the floor going for a loose ball.

However, Notre Dame rallied with some hot shooting and a stellar performance from sophomore point-guard Skylar Diggins to post a 72-63 win and earn a berth in the finals. Conseco Fieldhouse erupted when the Irish hit back-to-back 3-pointers by Mallory and Natalie Novosel to take an eight-point lead with 7:38 left in the game.

As the clock ran out, the Notre Dame players rushed the floor in jubilation, knowing they had pulled off the monumental victory.

“We knew what we wanted to do, and we knew we were going to accomplish this this year,” Mallory said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling that we are going to be playing for a national championship on Tuesday night.”

tom gizzi and brittany malloryIt was the year that all the No. 1 seeds would go down, just as on the men’s side. Texas A&M, which had already upset No. 1 seed Baylor, did the same to Stanford in the earlier national semifinal, and the Irish made it a clean sweep of top seeds, stunning Connecticut, setting the stage for an improbable national title game Tuesday.

Unfortunately, for the Irish faithful anyway, Danielle Adams stepped up on center stage like few others ever have in a championship game, scoring 30 points (the second-most points ever in a title game) to lead the Aggies (33-5) over the Irish (31-8).

But even with the pain of defeat, Mallory and the Irish had a wonderful season. McGraw certainly understood and appreciated the value that Mallory, who has one year of athletic eligibility remaining, brought to the team.

“It’s kind of unheard of, actually,” McGraw said, going back to current Irish assistant coach Niele Ivey to find the last player who was arguably her team’s best one-on-one defender and 3-point shooter. “When you go recruiting and you see somebody who can shoot, they generally can’t defend. They’re few and far between. And she has developed into that. She didn’t come in as a great defender, but she’s just so determined.”