NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In the end, the outcome was all but determined by what happened at the very beginning of Notre Dame’s NCAA semifinal game against Maryland on Sunday.
The Irish got the first possession. It lasted 29 seconds, included four Notre Dame shots and three offensive rebounds, the last by Jewell Loyd, who turned it into a layup.
“That gets pretty annoying,” Loyd said. “They start feeling like, ‘We can’t get a break.’”
Her opening points would be among the 20 the Irish scored on second – and third and fourth – chances, as they overpowered a bigger Maryland team on the boards, confused the Terrapins defensively, and got performances from coach Muffet McGraw and guard Kayla McBride that lived up to their recent accolades.
McGraw, winner of consecutive national coach of the year awards, flummoxed Maryland with a frequently changing mix of defenses. McBride, a consensus first-team All-American, had 28 points and seven rebounds.
The result was an 87-61 victory that sent the unbeaten Irish (37-0) into their third title game in the last four years. They meet Connecticut on Tuesday night.
It’s the dream final, matching two unbeaten teams for the first time in the history of the NCAA tournaments, men or women.
“We haven’t painted our masterpiece yet,” McGraw said. “But we were pretty darn close tonight.”
Notre Dame did it without its most potent inside force and leading rebounder, Natalie Achonwa, lost to a knee injury in Monday’s regional final. The Irish still outrebounded Maryland 50-21, including 19-4 on the offensive boards against a team that had been averaging 15 offensive rebounds.
“Our demeanor was we didn’t care how big they were,” Loyd said. “It doesn’t matter if you box out and get position.”
The 5-foot-10 Loyd and 6-2 reserve Markisha Wright led all rebounders with nine apiece. That was a season high for Wright, as were her 12 points - three more than she had scored in the previous five games combined. Loyd added 16 points.
“Player of the game,” McGraw said of Wright.
The junior from Des Moines also played a big part in shutting down Alyssa Thomas, the leading scorer and rebounder in Maryland history. Thomas’ 14 points were five under her season average, her six rebounds also five under.