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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish, Lady Bears bring new identities into Elite Eight rematch

| Sunday, March 29, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY — The NCAA tournament brackets from 2014 and 2015 look eerily similar, especially where No. 1 seed Notre Dame and No. 2 seed Baylor are concerned.

The two teams met in the last year’s Elite Eight, and they’re set for a rematch in this year’s Oklahoma City regional final Sunday.

However, the Irish (34-2, 15-1 ACC) and the Lady Bears (33-3, 15-2 Big XII) have made it clear that two completely different teams will face off at Chesapeake Energy Arena than the ones that met at Purcell Pavilion a season ago.

“Last year is last year,” Irish junior guard Jewell Loyd said. “Every year is different. We’re a different team. We have the same mindset, so we’re focused, and we’re ready to play.”

Though the Irish pulled away with the 88-69 victory in 2014, the Lady Bears aren’t letting history stifle their confidence headed into Sunday’s matchup.

“I don’t think you can compare the team we are this year to the team we were last year,” Baylor sophomore forward Nina Davis said. “I think last year, we were more focused on one player. We revolved around [former guard] Odyssey Sims, and this year, we have so many different weapons. Everybody steps up, and it’s really just confidence this year.”

Sims — who averaged 28.5 points per game for Baylor last season and now plays with the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock — is one of the main absences from last year’s roster to this year’s.

Davis has largely taken over her role as the Lady Bears’ go-to player, averaging 20.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.

Baylor sophomore forward Nina DavisJodi Lo | The Observer
Baylor sophomore forward Nina Davis vs. Iowa on March 27

“Unique is the perfect word to describe Nina Davis and her game,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “She can take it off the rim and get to the basket at the other end as quick as any guard in the country. She’s got great speed. She is a great rebounder. She is relentless.

“… We’ve been in this situation a few times this year, but nobody with quite the athleticism at that spot that she is, so she’s a very difficult matchup, I think, for anyone.”

Another key difference from last season’s regional final? The player who had the biggest impact for the Irish, Natalie Achonwa, now sits on the team’s bench as its operations specialist.

The former Notre Dame forward pulled down 15 rebounds — a postseason single-game record for Lady Bears opponents — and collected 19 points in the game.

But Achonwa tore her left ACL in the second half, and, before coming off the court, delivered an impassioned message to her teammates to incite them to protect their home court.

“That’s when we came together and said, ‘Let’s get it done. Let’s play with some heart.’ That’s exactly what we did,” Loyd said of the moment. “Natalie stood up and walked up the court, and it’s like, all right, someone is going to step up. You know right away, so we just played together.”

Irish junior guard Jewell Loyd vs. Stanford on March 27Jodi Lo | The Observer
Irish junior guard Jewell Loyd vs. Stanford on March 27

The Irish set another opponent single-game high in last year’s game by hitting 30 free throws. They’ve shown similar proficiency at the charity stripe this postseason, hitting all 13 of their attempts Friday against Stanford.

Lindsay Allen knocked down six of those attempts en route to 28 points, 24 in the first half, a new career-high for the sophomore guard. She also connected on four of her shots from behind the arc and went 6-of-6 from the field in a 10-minute span in the first half.

“Looking at last night’s game, I noticed that Lindsay Allen was on a roll, and you just have to stop that early and get them out of rhythm,” Baylor junior guard Niya Johnson said.

Irish sophomore guard Lindsay Allen vs. Stanford on March 27Jodi Lo | The Observer
Irish sophomore guard Lindsay Allen vs. Stanford on March 27

Johnson and Allen will face off Sunday night at point guard, with both players coming off sizzling Sweet 16 performances. While Allen found her shooting touch against Stanford, Johnson played the role of facilitator in a win over No. 3 seed Iowa, dishing out 16 of the Lady Bears’ 22 assists without committing a single turnover.

“I think that’s going to be a really fun matchup for the fans to watch,” McGraw said. “[Johnson] is just so good with the ball. She’s got a great handle, and she can really see the floor. She makes great decisions. She gets her players the ball exactly where they need it.”

Baylor junior guard Niya Johnson vs. Iowa on March 27Jodi Lo | The Observer
Baylor junior guard Niya Johnson vs. Iowa on March 27

Johnson found 6-foot-4 Baylor senior center Sune Agbuke most during the game against Iowa, and Agbuke recorded a double-double with 23 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Lady Bears to the win.

“As big as she is, honestly, Sune is more of a face-the-basket-type of post player than she is a back-to-the-basket-type post player that makes great moves,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “She just had openings [Friday] and got on a roll, and when you make two or three, you become more confident, and that rim gets bigger.”

The Irish and the Lady Bears will meet for a second consecutive year in an NCAA tournament regional final Sunday. Tip will come at 8:30 p.m. at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.

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