Numerous thoughts ran through Ericka Haney's head during the final moments of the NCAA women's basketball championship game Sunday night in St. Louis.
Thoughts of grueling, 6 a.m. practices dating back to last August came to mind. A stunning upset of then undefeated and No. 1 ranked Connecticut last January also flashed in her head as the seconds wound down in the title game, in which Notre Dame edged Purdue 68-66 to claim its first national championship in women's basketball.
Finishing the year as a member of the No. 1 team in the nation and returning to South Bend with the NCAA championship trophy in tow was the perfect ending to a fabulous season for the Irish, according to Haney, a Central Catholic graduate.
“It's the greatest feeling in the world, winning the NCAA championship,'' Haney said yesterday from South Bend. “Our season has been going since August, and all the 6 a.m. practices and running early in the mornings finally paid off.
“I feel like I'm on top of the world right now.''
Haney, a 6-1 junior starter who splits time playing guard and forward, scored 13 points and had five rebounds against Purdue. She said she envisioned being part of an NCAA championship team even back when she was a two-time, first-team All-Ohio pick at Central Catholic.
Yet with less than 24 hours elapsed since Notre Dame (34-2) began its reign as national champion, Haney admits dreams of becoming No. 1 don't come close to the real thing.
“It's the most amazing feeling. This is why you do all what you have to do, to get to the championship game.”
Haney and her teammates returned to South Bend around 3 a.m. Monday and were greeted by a couple thousand Irish supporters, leading to an impromptu, early morning pep rally.
And more celebrating is in the works - a visit to the White House and a trip to New York to be guests on Regis Philbin's show are ahead.
Furthermore, Haney looks forward to the day when they receive their championship rings.
“I didn't want to go back home with a silver ring,'' Haney said. “We wanted that gold ring.''
As teammate Ruth Riley sank two game-deciding free throws with 5.8 seconds remaining, Haney watched nervously and her heart thumped rapidly while the final seconds ticked off the clock after a Purdue jump shot missed the mark.
“The crowd was going wild and crazy,'' Haney recalled. “I was just so excited when the buzzer finally went off because it was the longest and most intense game I had ever been a part of.''
Haney admits her nerves were put to the test in the biggest game of her career. Yet she played through the pressure well enough to consider her effort a solid showing she'll remember for many years to come.
“I think I played great,'' said Haney, who logged 35 minutes in the title game. “I'm glad I could step up when I needed to help the team.
“To win a national championship and say you contributed to something like a national championship is something you can always cherish.''
As one of several Irish underclassmen returning next season, Haney said thinking about repeating as national champions is the furthest thing from their minds.
“We're just enjoying the moment. This has been very long and great season. Right now, it's time to take a break.''