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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish survive late Gamecocks comeback, advance to second straight title game

| Monday, April 6, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. — Down by one with five seconds left, South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell dribbled out to the left wing and took a step outside the arc.

Jewell Loyd and Hannah Huffman trapped her back with a double-team, just like the Irish had planned.

Mitchell fired the throw, and the ball met Huffman’s extended right hand, deflected towards the stands but still in bounds.

Three seconds left.

One last dribble, and Mitchell’s desperation heave with a second to go missed its mark, and the Irish celebrated in a way they hadn’t all season.

The clock only displayed zeros, and the scoreboard read, “Notre Dame 66, South Carolina 65.”

Irish head coach Muffet McGraw celebrates following the Irish victory over South Carolina on Sunday night. Kevin Song | The Observer

Irish head coach Muffet McGraw celebrates following the Irish victory over South Carolina on Sunday night.

The Irish (36-2) extended their trip to Tampa, Florida, for two more nights for a date in a second consecutive national championship game after topping the Gamecocks (34-3) on Sunday.

“We knew that it’s all about defense and getting stops, and we battled,” Loyd said. “We looked at each other, and we were like, ‘Let’s go. We need a stop.’

“We knew that shots weren’t always gonna fall, and we’re not gonna get calls, whatever it was, but defense — that’s the one thing we can control.”

“You’re not going to say no to such an amazing opportunity at an amazing moment in the game,” Huffman said. “My role all season has been a defensive stopper, and my role is to not let my girl get a shot off, to score any points, so it was really about me coming in there and shutting her down and helping out my team.”

But 11 seconds before Huffman’s swat sealed the victory, it was the Irish offense that needed to step up.

Notre Dame faced its first deficit of the night with 1:12 left in the game, the result of a layup from Gamecocks senior forward Aleighsa Welch.

On the other end of the floor, the Irish put the ball in the hands of their go-to, clutch shooter, Loyd.

Loyd’s jumper was rerouted by freshman guard/forward A’ja Wilson, but Irish senior guard Madison Cable was in the right place at the right time — next to the basket with 16 seconds left in the game.

In one deft movement, she snatched the rebound and threw up a short, turnaround jumper that dropped straight through the cylinder.

“Jewell shot it, which, usually, it goes in all the time,” Cable said. “I was just crashing anyway to try to get a rebound, and it kind of just bounced where I was. I turned around and had an open shot, so I took it.

“Luckily, it went it.”

Kevin Song | The ObserverKevin Song | The Observer

Notre Dame opened the game hot, scoring the first six points and jumping out to a 17-5 lead.

However, the Gamecocks responded with an 8-0 run to bring the score to 17-13, and the teams traded back-and-forth buckets for the rest of the half, with the Irish heading to the locker room with a 32-28 lead.

At that point, three Notre Dame players had posted 10 points — Loyd, sophomore forward Taya Reimer and freshman forward Brianna Turner — and the Irish barely trailed the taller Gamecocks in the rebounding battle, 24-21.

“I thought Bri and Taya really played well, especially in the first half,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “They were 8-for-11; we talked about at halftime, we needed to get them the ball more. I thought we had more opportunities to do that and weren’t quite as successful.

“We came out with a plan to go inside. Then Jewell got hot, and we kind of changed the plan a little bit and went to Jewell a little bit more.”

Loyd tallied 12 of her 22 points in the second half, and Notre Dame needed each and every one of them.

As in the first 20 minutes, the Gamecocks and Irish exchanged offensive runs after they were knotted at 36 about three minutes into the second stanza.

Notre Dame claimed the first run, 12-2, in three minutes, followed by an 8-0 response from South Carolina in the next two minutes.

McGraw said those frequent offensive spurts forced Notre Dame to switch up its defense just as often.

Kevin Song | The ObserverKevin Song | The Observer

“We went triangle-and-2 and box-and-1. We went 1-2-2, played a couple of possessions of man-to-man, played a little 2-3 — throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them, trying to figure out a way to stop them,” she said.

The Irish were able to jump back to and sustain a double-digit advantage with fewer than 10 minutes left, before the Gamecocks made their final push for the championship-game berth.

Notre Dame held a 64-52 lead at the 7:51 mark but went cold from the floor at an inopportune time, which allowed South Carolina to score 13 unanswered points until Cable’s jumper with 16 seconds left, snapping an 0-of-9 field-goal streak.

During that span, the Irish suffered the repercussions of early foul trouble, with two starters — Turner, followed by sophomore guard Lindsay Allen — fouling out in the game’s final three minutes.

McGraw said Allen’s departure especially worried her during South Carolina’s comeback.

“We told Jewell, ‘You’re going to have to run the point, and you’re going to have to take over the ball. We’re going to have to do it on defense. We’re going to have to rebound,’’’ McGraw said.

“When they took the lead, I wasn’t sure how things were going to end up for us because you never know if we’re going to be able to have that resilience that we needed at that point without our point guard.”

Kevin Song | The ObserverKevin Song | The Observer

The Irish were able to sustain that resilience for one last push toward the final buzzer, capped by Huffman’s block, which McGraw dubbed “the biggest play of the game.”

“When you have a player like Hannah Huffman, who is so passionate and motivated, she was ready,” Loyd said. “She was like, ‘Okay, I got it.’ And we had belief in her. We knew she was going to help us. Whatever she needed to do, whether get a steal or deflection, that’s what she was going to do. Hannah, that’s what she does for us.”

The Irish will next take on the tournament’s overall top seed, Connecticut, in Tuesday’s championship game. The Huskies routed No. 1 seed Maryland on Sunday, 81-58, and thwarted Notre Dame’s bid for a national title last year.

“You have to stay motivated,” Cable said. “We’re going to win, we’re going to have fun, but we’re motivated. And we’re enjoying this and we enjoy this night and live it up for sure and get refocused [Monday].”

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Current Assistant Managing Editor, former Sports Editor of The Observer | Follow Mary on Twitter: @maryegreen15

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