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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish face tall order against South Carolina in Final Four

| Saturday, April 4, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. — Rematch. Redemption. Revenge. The storyline practically writes itself if Notre Dame and Connecticut can advance past Sunday’s semifinal and meet once more in the NCAA title game.

But a tall task still awaits the No. 1 seed Irish (35-2, 15-1 ACC). Before they can even begin to think about the Huskies, they first have to best No. 1 seed South Carolina.

Muffet McGrawWei Lin | The Observer

Irish head coach Muffet McGraw

And it is not easy to look past a team that features eight players taller than 6-feet.

The Gamecocks (34-2, 15-1 SEC) are not only bigger than the Irish, who have three players that height who play regularly — they’re deep in the frontcourt as well, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said.

“I think they have the most depth of any team here,” McGraw said in her Saturday morning press conference. “They have great post players on the bench and in the starting lineup.

“You can’t think about, ‘We’ll have to get them in foul trouble, or maybe we can do this or that,’ because the people they’re bringing in are as good as or better than the ones they’re starting.”

South Carolina’s first two players off the bench, sophomore forward Alaina Coates and freshman forward A’ja Wilson, were both named all-SEC, with Wilson also claiming SEC Freshman of the Year honors.

“We really haven’t seen a post player with [Coates’s] size or ability all season long, so I think it’s going to be a little different for us to see the strength of their posts in this game,” McGraw said.

Coates and Wilson both play around 20 minutes per game but rarely start thanks to a wealth of older players in the frontcourt. However, the two are second and third on the team in scoring, respectively, and have also developed quickly thanks to a friendship they developed through playing AAU basketball together in high school.

“Alaina is out there just directing and telling A’ja what she needs to do, and A’ja is like a little pup,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “She’s listening, she’s like, okay, and she does exactly what Alaina tells her to do. … It’s helping [Coates] to add some tools to her toolbox that are intangible, and that will go a long way … ”

South Carolina head coach Dawn StaleyWei Lin | The Observer

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley

Notre Dame will counter with its own frontcourt duo of freshman forward Brianna Turner and sophomore forward Taya Reimer. But while South Carolina had the depth for Wilson and Coates to take time in their development, Turner and Reimer were immediately expected to come in and anchor the Irish post.

McGraw said at the beginning of the season she was uncertain if the forwards were gritty enough to propel the Irish, but Saturday, she called Reimer “the difference in our season.”

“Somewhere around the middle of January, she turned into a completely different person, and she has brought an energy and a confidence that we really needed,” McGraw said. “She’s the one that really brought out the toughness in the others.”

In the backcourt, Saturday’s game will feature a clash between two of the NCAA’s top guards: Irish junior Jewell Loyd and Gamecocks junior Tiffany Mitchell.

Both were named AP and WBCA All-Americans. Both were named their respective conferences’ player of the year. Both are finalists for the Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy, given to the nation’s top player. And the pair played together this past summer for USA Basketball.

Offensively, both players lead their teams in scoring. On the defensive end, they are often tasked with stopping the opponent’s best player, which means they might be seeing a lot of each other Sunday night.

“We have a connection. We both have similar games, which is what I think makes this such a great matchup,” Mitchell said. “I know she has a pretty good jump shot, and it’s hard to defend her coming off ball screens. Our friendship is definitely there, but, on the court, it’s business, so the friendship will be left at the door.”

For Loyd, the opportunity to play her friend so late in the tournament is a special opportunity.

“Well, you want good basketball,” she said. “You want good competition all the way around, so you want the challenge, and it’s awesome. We talked about that on the court as well, and we were excited to play each other.”

While Loyd has never missed the Final Four during her time at Notre Dame, Mitchell and the Gamecocks are making their first appearance in program history. While the Irish see that inexperience as their advantage, South Carolina sees it as an opportunity.

“[Experience] really counts for a lot being in the Final Four because there’s so much stuff you do off the court, and there’s different distractions,” Loyd said.

“They’ve been here before, so I feel like the pressure is on them to win,” Mitchell said. “Coming in as the new guys, we have nothing to lose, and we’re just going to play it like a regular game and refuse to lose.”

Notre Dame and South Carolina face off with a spot in the national championship on the line Sunday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, at 6:30 p.m.

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

Contact Greg