March 29, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (AP) - Natalie Achonwa gave the home fans plenty to cheer about.
The senior forward helped Notre Dame race out to a 14-0 lead and cruise to an easy win, ending Oklahoma State's hopes of winning its first NCAA tournament regional semifinal game.
Achonwa finished with 23 points, a career-high five blocked shots and two steals in the 89-72 victory on Saturday, yet that isn't what impressed Cowgirls coach Jim Littell about the 6-3 senior forward. He said she's most dangerous when passing.
"You turn your head and she's going to zip one right by your ear and hit somebody for an open layup or a two-footer," he said. "When you have the ability to score on the box but you also have the ability to beat people with the pass, it makes you a special player."
The most impressive of Achonwa's six assists was a behind-the-back pass around the back of an Oklahoma State defender for an easy basket inside by Madison Cable to give the Irish a 40-24 lead.
"It was just easy to find her with everyone so hawking and staring at you," Achonwa said. "She just made a great cut and was open in the paint."
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said the game plan was to try to go inside against the Cowgirls and the Irish guards found Achonwa.
"Just a fabulous game. She got us off to a great start," McGraw said.
McGraw also credited the sellout crowd of 8,774 with getting the Irish going.
"There's no question when we came out to see that sea of green and to hear the excitement and feel the electricity. What a phenomenal atmosphere for a game," she said. "I thought the roof might come off the crowd was so loud."
Notre Dame (35-0) is a victory away from its fourth straight Final Four berth, while the Cowgirls (25-9) fell to 0-3 in regional semifinals.
Notre Dame had a season-high 10 blocked shots, outscored the Cowgirls 42-34 in the paint and had a 46-36 advantage in rebounds.
"Their transition really killed," Oklahoma State guard Tiffany Bias said.
Bias wasn't slowed by an ankle injury suffered against Purdue, hitting a pair of 3-pointers early to end Oklahoma State's scoreless streak and finishing with 17 points and 11 assists. LaShawn Jones added 16 points and three blocked shots and Brittany Atkins had 13 points.
Jewell Loyd had 20 points and 12 rebounds and Kayla McBride added 18 points as the top-seeded Irish won at home for the 27th straight game. They will seek to extend that streak Monday against Baylor (32-4), which is 4-0 all-time against the Irish and the last opponent to win at Purcell Pavilion on Dec. 5, 2012.
For the Cowgirls it was a disappointing end to the best three-year stretch in school history, winning 69 games that included a WNIT title in 2012 and back-to-back berths in the NCAA tournament. All that came after the program was devastated 2 1/2 years ago by a fatal plane crash that killed coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna during a recruiting trip.
Littell said Bias was a key reason for Oklahoma State's recent success.
"She's been a leader since the day she stepped on this campus. She's taken this program to new levels, from being a WNIT team to the Sweet 16, and it all falls on what this young leader has done and how she's led over the year," he said. "I'm very, very proud of what she's accomplished."
Bias said she had been through a lot the past few years and said her teammates and coaches helped her through it.
"They were there on my hardest and there on my happiest days. They really stayed right by my side no matter what," she said. "That's what Oklahoma State really has, is a family. I think we've grown as people and we've grown as players. I wouldn't have it any other way."
McGraw was asked if she thinks this season's Irish might be better than last year's team because the players are no longer looking for Skylar Diggins to take over.
"We have a lot of people who can come in and have a big night. When you have three players you count on every night, one of them is going to have a big night," she said.
She added she believes Diggins' spirit still lives in the team.
"I think you see that in Jewell, Ace and Kayla and all the people that played with her, she said. "I think we're a good team, but it remains to be seen if we are better than last year."
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame advances to the NCAA regional finals (Elite Eight) for the fourth consecutive season and the sixth time in program history ... the Fighting Irish are 6-6 all-time in NCAA regional semifinal (Sweet 16) games ... Notre Dame ties a school record with its 35th win of the season, matching its totals in each of the past two seasons (35-4 in 2011-12; 35-2 in 2012-13), while extending the longest winning streak in program history and the longest by any Notre Dame team (in any sport) since at least World War II ... the Fighting Irish earn the program's 400th all-time win at Purcell Pavilion, improving to 400-90 (.816) in 37 seasons at the venerable facility, including an 11-2 (.846) mark in NCAA postseason games ... Notre Dame stretches its home winning streak to 27 consecutive games, the second-longest active run in the country and second-longest in Fighting Irish history ... Notre Dame and Connecticut are the only schools to reach the NCAA Elite Eight the past four seasons (2011-14), with Tennessee poised to join that duo if it defeats Maryland on Sunday in the Louisville Regional semifinals ... the Fighting Irish are 44-19 (.698) all-time in NCAA Championship play, including a 30-5 (.857) record as a higher seed and 18-2 (.900) mark as a No. 1 seed ... Notre Dame has scored at least 80 points in three NCAA tournament games for the second consecutive season and third time overall (also 2001), doing so in its first three tourney games for the first time ever ... the Fighting Irish have topped 70 points in 23 of their last 27 NCAA Championship games, improving to 20-3 (.870) in those contests ... Notre Dame's season-high 10 blocks also were the second-most for the Fighting Irish in an NCAA tournament game and most since April 1, 2001 (11 vs. Purdue in the NCAA national championship game in St. Louis) ... Notre Dame rises to 12-0 this season against ranked opponents and has won 11 of those by double figures (while also moving to 39-5 against Top 25 teams since the start of 2011-12 season, including a 13-1 record at home) ... the Fighting Irish won their 19th consecutive game overall and 32nd consecutive home game against a first-time opponent, improving to 43-3 (.935) against new foes since 2000-01 and 12-0 against first-time opponents in the NCAA Championship during that 14-season span (with their last three Sweet 16 games all coming against first-time opponents St. Bonaventure, Kansas and Oklahoma State, respectively) ... Notre Dame moves to 30-12 (.714) all-time against the current Big 12 Conference membership, including a 13-2 (.867) mark at home and 7-4 (.636) record in the NCAA Championship ... the Fighting Irish were playing a Big 12 team in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons, following a split with Oklahoma (loss in 2010, win in 2011) and a 2013 win over Kansas ... Notre Dame shot better than 50 percent from the floor for the 22nd time this season ... senior forward/tri-captain Natalie Achonwa posted her eighth 20-point game of the season (and second in a row), while her career-high five blocks tied for the third-most by a Fighting Irish player in an NCAA tournament game (most since Devereaux Peters' record-tying seven blocks vs. California in a second-round game on March 20, 2012, at Purcell Pavilion) ... Achonwa also registered her fifth game this season with at least five assists (ninth career) ... sophomore guard Jewell Loyd moved into 29th place on Notre Dame's all-time scoring list with 1,078 points, passing Carrie Bates (1,060 from 1981-85) ... Loyd, who scored in double figures for the 40th consecutive game (second-longest streak in school history), also topped Skylar Diggins' program record for most points by a Fighting Irish player in her first two seasons (Diggins had 1,069 points from 2009-11) ... Loyd posted her fifth double-double of the season and sixth of her career, with her season-high 12 rebounds one off her career (at South Florida on Jan. 8, 2013) ... Loyd collected her 12th 20-point game of the season, tying senior guard/tri-captain Kayla McBride for team-high honors ... freshman guard Lindsay Allen had at least five assists for the 14th time this season and 0-2 turnovers for the 25th time this year ... junior forward Markisha Wright grabbed a season-high seven rebounds, while junior guard Madison Cable had a career-best two blocks ... Saturday's attendance of 8,774 was officially a sellout (based upon a new seating configuration for the NCAA tournament), the fourth sellout of the season for Notre Dame and the 40th in program history; it also was the second-largest postseason crowd ever at Purcell Pavilion, trailing only Notre Dame's 2001 NCAA second-round win over Michigan, which drew 9,597 fans prior to the arena's renovation when the listed capacity was 11,418 ... Notre Dame will face No. 5/6 (and second-seeded) Baylor in Monday's regional final, which will tip off at 7:30 p.m. (ET) and can be seen live on ESPN and the WatchESPN platform, while the Notre Dame Radio Network broadcast can be heard live in Michiana on Pulse FM (96.9/92.1), as well as online through the official Fighting Irish athletics multimedia platform, WatchND, with veteran broadcaster Bob Nagle on the call ... currently, tickets for Monday's regional final are sold out, although some additional tickets could be made available depending on returns by various constituencies; fans wishing to purchase tickets are encouraged to contact Notre Dame's Murnane Family Athletics Ticket Office beginning at 8:30 a.m. (ET) Monday by calling (574) 631-7356, going online to UND.com/buytickets or through Twitter (@NDTix), or visiting the ticket windows inside Gate 9 (Rosenthal Atrium) at Purcell Pavilion.