ND Women’s Basketball
Green: Irish playing like they expected this all along
Mary Green | Monday, April 6, 2015
TAMPA, Fla. — The bench made the difference in Sunday’s game, but it wasn’t the bench we thought would come up more.
Before tip-off, we thought No. 1 seed South Carolina’s reserves might be the X-factor — after all, they accounted for 48.7 percent of the team’s points throughout the season and outscored the starters in their first four NCAA tournament games.
But it was the bench on the other side of the floor that came up big when it mattered most.
No. 1 seed Notre Dame’s two biggest plays — the jumper by senior guard Madison Cable to put the Irish ahead with 16 seconds left and the blocked pass by junior guard Hannah Huffman to seal the victory with five seconds remaining — came from reserve players.
Irish scoring could hardly be considered spread out, with junior guard Jewell Loyd (22 points), freshman forward Brianna Turner (17) and sophomore forward Taya Reimer (16) tallying 83.3 percent of the team’s points.
But once South Carolina took a 65-64 lead with 1:12 left in the game, it didn’t matter who had scored the most or who had the best field-goal percentage.
It mattered who made the big plays to put Notre Dame in the biggest game.
That’s been the strength of the Irish throughout the tournament: Their X-factor isn’t necessarily an All-American, an All-ACC selection or even a member of the starting five.
Their game-changer can be anyone who steps on the floor with the word “Irish” across her chest and green nail polish on her fingers.
Try to set up your defensive matchups with a challenge like that. You don’t know who to double-team because every player on the court is capable of going off at any moment, and that depth and parity might be the key to Notre Dame getting past Connecticut for its second national championship Tuesday.
From an outsider’s point of view, the Irish have nothing to lose. Head coach Muffet McGraw has repeatedly said throughout the tournament that she never expected them to make it as far as they did, especially not to a second straight title game.
Yet here they are, one of two teams still to be crossed out from the NCAA bracket.
But you’d be sorely mistaken if you thought this Notre Dame squad was playing like they’re on borrowed time. No, they’re competing like they deserve and expect to return to South Bend with the No. 1 sign on Grace Hall lit up.
A team that just made the trip down to Tampa to have fun wouldn’t have battled throughout the game like the Irish did Sunday. They lost their starting point guard, who averaged 25.5 points and 38 minutes in the last two games, and their leading rebounder to fouls, and they gave up a lead they held for the entire game with a little over a minute left, but they fought back in crunch time to earn the championship berth.
Last year, the storyline when Notre Dame and Connecticut met in the national championship game was the battle of the undefeateds, Muffet versus Geno, Big East foes reunited on the biggest stage.
There was hostility, there was tension, and there was drama.
This time around, the competitive fire is still there for the team in blue and gold, but there’s also a certain looseness to this Irish team that the program hasn’t seen in years. That relaxed excitement is embodied in players like Cable and Huffman, who could be found leaping around the court and joking with the press after Sunday’s win, when they made the biggest plays in a high-intensity game.
After her team’s win over Maryland on Sunday night, Connecticut junior forward Breanna Stewart was asked about the Dec. 6 matchup between the Huskies and the Irish, a question that players from both rosters will receive in the next two days.
She said, “We really were the aggressors, and we came in there, and we wanted that game more.”
Notre Dame may not display the same aggression or intensity it had under former leaders like Skylar Diggins, Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa, but don’t let that fool you.
This team wants it, as much as ever before, and everyone — starters and reserves — is ready to fight for it.