ND Women’s Basketball
Vicky Jacobsen | Monday, March 31, 2014
Irish defeat Baylor in Elite Eight, advance to fourth-straight Final Four
Who said girls play nice?
It took about 35 minutes of rough-and-tumble play for No. 1-seed Notre Dame to break away from the second-seeded Lady Bears, but when all was said and done, the Irish claimed an 88-69 win and their fourth straight trip to the Final Four.
“When [former Irish guard] Skylar [Diggins] came in, people expected that we would be in the Final Four, but when Skylar graduated, I don’t think anyone expected that we would be back,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think it says a lot about this team and their mental toughness and the grit that they got together and had this unbelievable season.”
The Irish celebration was somewhat tempered by the uncertain status of senior forward Natalie Achonwa, who was taken down by a hard foul from Baylor sophomore forward Chardonae Fuqua’ and left the game with an injured knee with 4:51 remaining in the second half.
“It sucked the air right out of the room,” McGraw said. “We don’t know what it is yet. That was just a really hard foul, one of many hard fouls in the game, and you hate to see a player go down like that.”
McGraw said Achonwa will have an MRI on Tuesday to determine the extent of the injury. But Achonwa has proven she can be useful to her team when she’s not playing ¾ as she stood up from the floor to head to the locker room, she caught the attention of her teammates and forcefully reminded them they were playing to protect their home court. The Irish (35-0, 16-0 ACC), who were leading by 11 at the time of the foul, finished out the game with a 13-5 run.
Although the home crowd helped the Irish jump to an early lead against Oklahoma State on Saturday, the Lady Bears (32-5, 19-2 Big 12) did not show jitters in the opening minutes Monday night. Junior forward Sune Agbuke and senior guard Odyssey Sims scored the first baskets of the night, which were soon followed by a layup from Achonwa and a jump shot from sophomore guard Jewell Loyd. The two teams traded the lead back and fourth until Loyd tied the score at 21-21 at 8:44 with a layup that marked the start of a personal eight-point run.
“I was just trying to get something going, find some energy,” Loyd said. “I kind of took what the defense gave me, and I credit my teammates for finding me and pressing me enough to take those shots.”
As the first half wound down, the Irish stretched the lead to as many as 13 points, in part because they hit 11 of 13 free throws. The Lady Bears, who were called for 13 fouls in the first half, went to the line only three times in the first period. The Irish committed only five first-half fouls, but because senior guard Kayla McBride was called for two of them, she spent all but four minutes of the first half on the bench. With McBride looking on, Loyd scored 21 points ¾ she finished the night with 30 ¾ and Notre Dame went into the locker room leading 44-32.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” McBride said of Loyd’s offensive outburst. “It’s something that I expect of them; they’re talented players, and it just says a lot about this entire team that when I’m out I don’t really have to worry about it because we have so many players who are willing to step up.”
But the Lady Bears showed signs of life early in the second period. Sims scored nine points in four minutes to open the half, including a 3-pointer that narrowed the lead to 46-41. Sims finished the night with 33 points and six assists.
“She’s good,” Loyd said at the post-game press conference, eliciting a laugh from her coach. “She knows how to split a defense, and I think it was a team effort tonight to stop her, and I think we did a pretty good job.”
“Our goal was to hold her under 40,” McGraw added.
Although the Lady Bears pulled themselves back into the game in the second half, at 13:30 Baylor coach Kim Mulkey took issue with a foul called on Sims and grabbed the ball as it rolled to the bench. The referees issued a technical foul on the bench, and Mulkey had to be restrained by players and assistant coaches. McBride took ¾ and made ¾ both free throws to put the Irish up, 55-46.
But the Lady Bears were not quite done. With 7:30 remaining in the game, Sims stole the ball and passed it to sophomore guard Nina Davis, who threw in a layup to cut the Irish lead to 65-60. Just a few plays later, however, Irish freshman guard Lindsay Allen got a steal of her own and raced down-court. Sims wrapped her arms around Allen and was called for her fourth foul of the game. Allen hit both free throws to put Notre Dame up by nine, and the Irish never looked back.
Notre Dame will head south to Nashville, Tenn., for the national semifinal game Sunday at Bridgestone Arena. The Irish will face either fourth-seeded Maryland or No. 3 seed Louisville, who play for the Louisville Regional championship Tuesday at 7 p.m.