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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish ‘overachieve’ in championship game run

| Friday, May 15, 2015

To the casual observer, it was the same old story for Notre Dame this year. Another dominant regular season. Another conference title. Another Final Four berth. And ultimately, another defeat to Connecticut on the biggest stage.

Irish junior guard Jewell Loyd drives against Connecticut junior guard Moriah Jefferson during Notre Dame’s 63-53 loss in the national championship. Loyd finished the game with 12 points and five rebounds.Kevin Song | The Observer

Former Irish guard Jewell Loyd drives against Connecticut junior guard Moriah Jefferson during Notre Dame’s 63-53 loss in the national championship. Loyd finished the game with 12 points and five rebounds.

But after losing Natalie Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Ariel Braker to graduation and still posting a 36-3 record and 15-1 mark in the ACC, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw doesn’t view things that way.

“I’ll be proud,” McGraw said when asked how she will remember the 2014-2015 campaign. “We lost three starters and two All-Americans. We overachieved. I thought maybe we were a year away from the Final Four.”

Entering the season, McGraw said her goal from the team was a national championship following four straight semifinal appearances. But she also kept things in perspective. With an entirely new frontcourt and no senior starters, she was fairly certain a fifth straight Final Four would not be as easy as in years past.

“We’re going to take some lumps early, and we’re going to have a lot of games that could go either way, and we’ll see what happens,” McGraw said Nov. 12.

However, the Irish started the season with eight straight wins, rising to a No. 1 ranking in the USA Today coaches poll and topping opponents, including a Maryland team that would end up in the Final Four, by an average of 43.5 points.

Notre Dame then welcomed No. 3 Connecticut to Purcell Pavilion on Dec. 6 for the Jimmy V Women’s Classic. The meeting between the Huskies and the Irish marked a rematch of the 2014 NCAA title game, when Connecticut ran away with 79-58 victory.

Similar to the championship game, Notre Dame entered the contest without its star frontcourt player. Last year, forward Natalie Achonwa was out with a torn ACL, and this season freshman forward Brianna Turner was sidelined with a shoulder injury.

Turner’s absence in the post cost the Irish, who lost the rebounding battle, 52-34, and were outscored in the paint, 44-28. But afterwards, McGraw did not blame the loss solely on her frontcourt. She also faulted the inexperience of her players.

“I don’t think we’re tough enough,” McGraw said following the defeat. “I don’t think we have the mentality of toughness that the last four [Final Four] teams have had.

“We looked like a deer in headlights. … When things [went] bad, [junior guard Jewell Loyd] was the only one who really wanted the ball.”

Four days later, the Irish were driven by then-No. 25 DePaul to the brink of their first losing streak in five years. Down six points with 2:50 remaining on the road, Notre Dame turned to Loyd, who responded by scoring 14 of the team’s next 22 points, including the game-winning free throws in overtime, to scrape out a 94-93 win.

“She has been amazing all year long, but tonight was just phenomenal,” McGraw said after the win. “ … I mean, she played the entire game, [had] great defense and did so many good things. She just never quit. We gave her less than a minute’s rest, and she was still able to find it in the tank to finish the game.”

On the night, Loyd tallied 41 points, tying a program record. On the season, she averaged 19.8 points and finished with 772 total points, four short of Notre Dame’s single season record. She was named an AP and WBCA All-American for the second year in a row, voted the ACC’s most outstanding player and was a finalist for the Wooden Award, Wade Trophy and Naismith Trophy, all given to the nation’s top player.

Loyd was one of three Irish players selected as an AP All-American; Turner and sophomore guard Lindsay Allen were both honorable mentions. Turner was also named the ACC freshman of the year, while Allen was a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, given to the best point guard in the NCAA.

Allen in particular impressed McGraw this season, as she stepped up from a supporting role last year to become a vocal leader and legitimate scoring threat in her own right. She improved her stats from 6.2 to 10.4 points per game and 3.9 to 5.2 assists per contest, and her assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.14 ranked 32nd in the nation.

“Last year, she was able to come in and simply run the team without having to be vocal,” McGraw said. “ … This year, we asked her to do more. We asked her to score more. We asked her to be more involved in the offense, to be more vocal, to be the true leader of the team.”

But while Allen, Turner and Loyd played well all season long, the young Irish squad still experienced growing pains. On the road against Miami (Fla.) on Jan. 8, the trio produced 82.5 percent of Notre Dame’s offense, while the rest of the team shot 18.5 percent from the floor in a 78-63 loss.

“You never like to lose, but we’re just so darn young sometimes that we needed maybe a kick in the pants to kind of say we need to come out ready,” McGraw said following the loss. “I don’t know mentally what they were thinking before the game, but we were uncharacteristically bad in the first half.”

Sophomore forward Taya Reimer did not even make the trip to Miami with the Irish. Midway through the season, she missed two games for unexplained reason, but McGraw said she came back renewed and reenergized in her return against North Carolina on Jan. 15.

“She really came on strong,” McGraw said. “She made a conscious decision to lay it all on the line. … She took over some leadership of the freshmen and really stepped up like a veteran.”

The Miami defeat was Notre Dame’s first conference loss as a member of the ACC, but the Irish followed it up with 14 straight wins to end the regular season, including a six-week stretch between Jan. 15 and Feb. 23 in which they defeated four top-10 opponents: No. 10 North Carolina, 89-79; No. 5 Tennessee, 88-77; No. 10 Duke, 63-50; and No. 8 Louisville, 68-52.

“We came through undefeated,” McGraw said. “So it was sometime in early February we really started to think we had a chance [to reach the Final Four].”

For the second straight year, the Irish claimed the regular season ACC championship, then traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina, and claimed the tournament title as well. In the championship game against Florida State, Notre Dame owned the boards against the third-best rebounding team in the country, grabbing 39 to the Seminoles’ 27.

With an automatic berth and No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame hosted its first two games, handling Montana and DePaul by double-digit margins. Then, in the Sweet 16, the Irish stormed by No. 14 Stanford in Oklahoma City.

In the Elite Eight, Notre Dame and Baylor faced off in a rematch of last year’s regional final. Behind a career-best 28 points from Allen, the Irish emerged on top for their fifth straight Final Four appearance, joining a group of three other programs to advance to that many in a row.

“I’ll tell you, this one was the hardest,” McGraw said. “ … I think we played the toughest schedule in the country, so we learned a lot through it. … But this one is incredibly satisfying, to see what this team was able to do together.”

In Tampa, Florida, McGraw and the Irish were far from just happy to be there but did adopt a more light-hearted approach than in years past.

“We were trying to have fun,” McGraw said. “We just wanted to enjoy the experience and play loose. Especially with a young team, they don’t need to feel any pressure. They just need to play their game, and that’s when they play their best.”

Facing No. 1 seed South Carolina in its first ever Final Four appearance, the Irish took 12-point leads in both the first and second halves, only to have the Gamecocks battle back. Finally, with 1:12 left to play, South Carolina took its first lead of the game on a layup from freshman forward A’ja Wilson.

Loyd, who led all scorers in the game with 22 points, missed a jumper with 21 seconds left, but senior guard Madison Cable came in unboxed for a quick rebound and layup to give the team the lead.

On the following possession, senior guard and two-time SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell tried to break past junior guard Hannah Huffman but was denied, sealing the victory for Notre Dame and marking their fourth title game appearance in five years.

“I was just amazed,” McGraw said immediately afterwards. “I think Maddie makes a great play, and then we get a great defensive stop. So yeah, I was pretty happy after that one.”

For the fifth straight Final Four and second straight championship, Notre Dame and Connecticut faced off. While Turner was healthy for the Irish this time around, they still could not find a way to solve the Huskies, falling short once more, 63-53.

Notre Dame and McGraw have not won a national title since 2001, but she said she does not feel as if there is any mental block the team needs to overcome.

“There are probably 350 schools in the country that would love to be in the position we’re in, so we don’t look at it in those terms,” McGraw said. “We look at it as being incredibly successful to get to the Final Four five years in a row. … Certainly we come in every year with the goal of winning it all, and we just need to shoot the ball a little bit better. It comes down to some pretty basic things.”

In the immediate aftermath of the loss, McGraw reiterated her goal of reaching a sixth semifinal next season and trying to knock off the Huskies, who have now won three straight titles and 10 overall.

However, about an hour after the defeat, Notre Dame’s hopes for the 2015-2016 campaign were dealt a serious blow when Loyd informed the team she would be forgoing her senior season to enter the WNBA draft. A week later, she was selected first overall by the Seattle Storm.

With the loss of Loyd, the Irish will have to replace nearly a quarter of their offensive production. Still, a small piece of good news has emerged for Notre Dame this spring: Cable, who sat out her freshman season due to injury, will return for a fifth year. McGraw called Cable the “best sixth man in the country” this past season.

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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