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ND Women’s Basketball

Season Recap: ND advances to Final Four again

| Friday, May 16, 2014

At the start of the season in November, the question on everyone’s mind was: How will Notre Dame transition to its new era in the ACC, especially without All-American guard Skylar Diggins?

The Irish seemed to have found their answer, running the table to win the ACC regular season and tournament championships and extending their undefeated streak to 37 games before falling to Connecticut in the national championship game.

As a result of the confidence Notre Dame (37-1, 16-0 ACC) displayed on the court and the dominant victories it picked up, winning all but two games by 10 points or more, even Irish coach Muffet McGraw said her team’s results were better than she anticipated in November.

“This season way exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We really overachieved, I thought, and exceeded all expectations. To go undefeated, to go into the Final Four and ACC undefeated, to win the [ACC] tournament, I don’t think we really expected that.”

Much of that success resulted from the play of the so-called “Big Three” — senior guard Kayla McBride, senior forward Natalie Achonwa and sophomore guard Jewell Loyd — who combined to average 51.1 points, 19.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game for the Irish.

All three earned AP All-American accolades, with McBride on the first team, Loyd on the second and Achonwa on the third. McBride and Loyd were also chosen as members of the 10-player WBCA Coaches’ All-American team, with McBride’s selection the second of her college career.

“We definitely expected that those three were going to play a major role,” McGraw said. “Kayla was All-American [in 2013], and we kind of knew coming in that she was going to be a player-of-the-year candidate. Jewell had a phenomenal freshman year, so we expected she was going to have a pretty good year. Natalie was playing the best basketball of her career, too. So it was great to see the three of them continue to improve and to be talked about quite a lot on the national scene.”

McBride, who started all 38 games and averaged 29.4 minutes of play in those contests, was named the ACC Player of the Year and a finalist for the Naismith Trophy and the Wade Trophy, which honor the top player in the country.

For her part in guiding Notre Dame to success that many pundits did not think the team would achieve, McGraw swept national coach-of-the-year honors for the third time in her career, earning the AP, USBWA, Naismith and Pat Summitt (formerly WBCA) awards.

“My staff does such a phenomenal job, and when you have a team play as well as we did, I think it’s a reward for the staff, and it’s a team award for us,” McGraw said.

En route to collecting those accolades, the Irish battled through the nation’s second-toughest schedule to pick up 14 wins against ranked opponents, eight of those against top 10 foes.

After breezing through nonconference play, Notre Dame faced its first real test of the season Jan. 12 in its third ACC game, during a visit to Charlottesville, Va., to take on Virginia.

Though the Irish led for the majority of the game, the Cavaliers cut their deficit to two points with less than four minutes remaining. Backed by Achonwa’s career-high 29 points and 16 rebounds, Notre Dame fought for its first of two single-digit wins, 79-72.

Eight days later, the squad began a difficult stretch of road games with a come-from-behind win over No. 12 Tennessee, 86-70. The Irish trailed by 12 points to the Lady Vols at one point in the first half and entered halftime down four, but they responded in the second half to claim the win as five players scored in double figures, including McBride, junior guard Madison Cable and sophomore guard Michaela Mabrey, all of whom hit three 3-pointers.

McBride said the deep group of reserve players, including Mabrey, Cable and freshman forward Taya Reimer, was the key to battling through the challenging season.

“That was the reason we were so successful this year, because of our bench,” McBride said. “I think Michaela Mabrey was the best sixth man on the year. Taya Reimer came off and did big things. It was a collaborative effort, and I think that’s why were so successful because even when we went to our bench, we didn’t lose anything — we actually gained something.”

A week later, Notre Dame snuck away from No. 6 Maryland with a close 87-83 victory in College Park, Md., on Jan. 27. Loyd posted a career-high 31 points in a game that saw her team squander a 22-point lead, only to scramble for the four-point win against a resilient Terrapins squad.

Six days after that, the Irish completed their trio of road tests with a contest against then-No. 3 Duke, who was voted to finish first in the ACC in the preseason coaches’ poll, in Durham, N.C.

While there was much pregame hype about the matchup between two top-three teams, Notre Dame cruised to a blowout 88-67 win, leading from start to finish against the Blue Devils.

Loyd said the mid-winter stretch of road games proved the Irish were a force to be reckoned with.

“It was very key,” she said. “It tested how tough we were and how deep our bench was. Definitely in that game against Tennessee, our bench play was very clutch, so it just showed how tough we were.”

After that span, Notre Dame closed out its unbeaten regular season with eight more wins over ACC foes, including a second victory over Duke, to earn the conference title.

The squad then headed to Greensboro, N.C., for its first ACC tournament, in which it beat Florida State, North Carolina State and Duke for the tournament crown, marking the second year in a row it picked up a conference tournament title. The Irish bested Connecticut in 2013 for the Big East championship.

“I think [the ACC is] probably the best league in women’s basketball,” McGraw said. “So to go through that and to do it in back-to-back years, in the Big East and into the ACC … I think this team continues to step up to any challenge that’s given to them.”

With that championship, Notre Dame earned an outright berth and a No. 1 seed in its 19th-consecutive NCAA tournament, where it took on Robert Morris and Arizona State, respectively, in the first two rounds in Toledo, Ohio.

The Irish then headed home for two regional games at Purcell Pavilion against Oklahoma State and Baylor, who defeated Notre Dame in the 2012 national championship.

In the Elite Eight matchup against the Bears, Notre Dame faced its first challenge of the tournament when Achonwa tore her left ACL with less than five minutes remaining. Though she had to be helped off the floor, the senior captain delivered a fiery motivational pep talk to her team, who responded by collecting an 88-69 win to advance to its fourth-straight Final Four.

McGraw said the team continually counted on its three seniors — Achonwa, McBride and forward Ariel Braker — to carry it through challenges like Achonwa’s injury.

“We had great leadership,” she said. “Our senior class was phenomenal, and really everyone contributed.”

In Nashville, Tenn., for the Final Four, the Irish faced Maryland again, but this time, they did not have trouble retaining their lead, running away from the Terrapins with an 87-61 victory to put them in the national championship game for the third time in four years.

Once again, contributions from the bench helped Notre Dame in the national semifinal, with junior forward Markisha Wright — who averaged nine minutes of playing time per game — chipping in 12 points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes on the court to make up for Achonwa’s absence in the paint.

“They’re the reason that we got to the Final Four,” Loyd said of the Irish reserves. “Our bench is very committed to coming in and doing what they need to do. They don’t try to go outside their roles, but they just have fun and do their game.”

The win set up a highly anticipated matchup with former Big East rival Connecticut on April 8, the first time in NCAA tournament history that two undefeated teams faced off for the championship. While the two teams had met at least once in the regular season every year since 1995, scheduling did not allow them to play until the NCAA tournament this season.

“It’s just a good game for women’s basketball in general,” McBride said of the matchup with the Huskies. “It would have sucked if people didn’t get to see that rivalry because it’s such an intense game and so competitive.”

Though the Irish were able to keep the first half relatively close, entering halftime in a seven-point deficit after being down as many as 14, the Huskies came out on top in the end, 79-58.

The loss was the final game in the collegiate careers of Braker, McBride and Achonwa — the latter two of whom were selected April 14 in the first round of the WNBA Draft by the San Antonio Stars and Indiana Fever, respectively.

With the season’s only defeat on their minds, the returning Irish have an opportunity to retake the series momentum when the rivals renew their competition Dec. 6 at Purcell Pavilion in the Jimmy V Women’s Classic.

“That was a really tough loss for us,” McGraw said “That definitely is going to take some time to get over. I don’t think winning in the regular season is going to make us feel any better, so we just have to work our way back and hope we get the chance to get back to the Final Four again.”

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