#2 Irish Return to Final Four With 88-69 Win Over #5/6 Baylor Notre Dame reaches national semifinals for fourth straight year and is the fifth school in NCAA history to make six total Final Four appearances.
Sophomore guard Jewell Loyd was named the MVP of the NCAA Notre Dame Regional after scoring a team-high 30 points (her school record-tying third 30-point game of the year) on Monday evening in Purcell Pavilion.
"I couldn't be prouder of this team," coach Muffet McGraw said. "This senior class came in unheralded and set all kind of records. To win it at home, to celebrate with our fans is special.
Natalie Achonwa added 19 points and 15 rebounds for the Irish (36-0), who will bring a perfect record into the Final Four for the first time, facing either Louisville or Maryland on Sunday night in Nashville.
The Irish did get a scare Monday when Achonwa hurt her left knee with just under five minutes left. McGraw said her senior center would have an MRI on Tuesday.
"It sucked the air right out of the room," McGraw said. "I don't know what it is yet. ... You hate to see a player go down like that."
It's the fourth straight season that the Irish are in the national semifinals. Notre Dame became the sixth school to reach the Final Four in four straight seasons, joining UConn, LSU, Stanford, Louisiana Tech and Tennessee.
The loss ended the brilliant career of Baylor guard Odyssey Sims, who finished this season with 1,054 points -- eight short of Jackie Stiles' NCAA record for a single season. Sims scored 33 points for Baylor (32-5), but had little help on offense. Her teammates were a combined 12 for 45 with no one else scoring in double digits.
Lindsay Allen (15) dribbles as Baylor Bears guard Odyssey Sims (0) defends.
"I had a great run. My four years, I've enjoyed it," Sims said. "Not one moment have I been unhappy at Baylor. I got to play with a lot of great players. This season is probably my most enjoyable. I like the team I've been around."
The win extended Notre Dame's home winning streak to 28 games. Baylor was the last team to beat the Irish in South Bend -- doing so on Dec. 5, 2012 -- but that team had 6-foot-8 star Brittney Griner.
Despite the loss, it was another superb season for Baylor. The Lady Bears advanced to the regional final for the fourth time in five seasons, a year after they were eliminated in the regional semifinals with Griner by Louisville in one of the biggest upsets in women's basketball history.
The Irish took control in the first half with senior Kayla McBride on the bench with early foul trouble. Trailing 21-17 midway through the first half, Loyd and Achonwa got the Irish going. Achonwa, who had a double-double in the first half, started a 14-0 run with a layup. Loyd then scored the next eight points, including a highlight reel three-point play that made it 24-21 and whipped up the sellout home crowd, which included former Irish star Skylar Diggins.
"That was huge," McGraw said. "We needed every single thing that she did. Jewell felt like she could score whenever she wanted. We were running things for her and she delivered on every possession."
By the time Sims hit a pullup in the lane with 5:32 left the Lady Bears trailed 31-24. The Irish led 44-32 at the half as Loyd, who earned most outstanding player of the region honors, finished with 21 points in the first 20 minutes.
Sims rallied the Lady Bears scoring the first nine points of the second half to cut the deficit to 46-41. After a Notre Dame basket Baylor was called for back-to-back offensive fouls -- the eighth and ninth called in the game -- and coach Kim Mulkey had seen enough, letting the officials know her displeasure. That earned her a technical foul.
Senior Natalie Achonwa had 19 points and 15 rebounds before leaving with a knee injury.
The teams traded baskets over the next few minutes and Baylor closed to within 65-60 before Notre Dame took over scoring 16 of the next 20 points, including eight from the free throw line. The Irish were 30 for 33 from the foul line in the game.
"I couldn't be prouder of this team. This senior class came in unheralded and set all kind of records. To win it at home, to celebrate with our fans is special."
During the game-changing run is when Achonwa got hurt. She went down holding her left knee and after a few moments got up with help and pointed to her teammates, telling them to get it done before heading to the locker room.
They followed their senior leader's advice coming away with the victory. And she joined them for the celebration on the court.
The win was Notre Dame's first against Baylor, which had won the previous four meetings -- including a victory in the 2012 national championship game that completed a 40-0 season for the Lady Bears. Now Notre Dame is two wins away from becoming the eighth team to go through the season unbeaten.
-- ND --
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame earns its fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Women's Final Four and the sixth in program history (1997, 2001, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014) ... Notre Dame is 6-0 all-time in NCAA Elite Eight games, with Monday's margin the second-largest in those six regional final contests (behind an 80-49 win over Maryland in the 2012 Raleigh Regional final) ... the Fighting Irish are the sixth team in NCAA Championship history to reach the Women's Final Four in four consecutive seasons, along with Connecticut, LSU, Louisiana Tech, Stanford and Tennessee ... Notre Dame is the fifth school and head coach Muffet McGraw is the fifth coach in NCAA Championship history to make six Women's Final Four appearances, along with Tennessee (Pat Summitt), Connecticut (Geno Auriemma), Stanford (Tara VanDerveer) and Louisiana Tech (Leon Barmore) ... in the past four years, the Fighting Irish are 16-0 in the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament, winning all 16 games by double digits (an average margin of victory of 23.6 points per game) ... Notre Dame is the first ACC school to reach the Women's Final Four since 2007 (North Carolina) ... Notre Dame sets a school record with its 36th win of the season, topping the mark it set in the past two campaigns (35-4 in 2011-12; 35-2 in 2012-13), while extending the longest winning streak in program history and longest by any Fighting Irish team (in any sport) since at least World War II ... Notre Dame extends its home winning streak to 28 games, the second-longest active run in the country and second-longest in program history ... Notre Dame tied its program record with 17 home wins this season, matching its effort from 2011-12, when they went 17-1 ... the Fighting Irish are 45-19 (.703) all-time in NCAA Championship play, including a 31-5 (.861) record as a higher seed and a 19-2 (.905) mark as a No. 1 seed ... Notre Dame has set a new program standard by scoring at least 80 points in all four of its NCAA Championship contests this year, exceeding its three 80-point outings in 1997, 2001 and 2013 ... the Fighting Irish also have topped 70 points in 24 of their last 28 NCAA Championship games, improving to 21-3 (.875) in those contests ... Notre Dame jumps to 13-0 this season against ranked opponents (7-0 against top-10 teams) and has won 12 of those by double figures (while also moving to 40-5 against Top 25 teams since the start of 2011-12 season, including a 14-1 record at home) ... Notre Dame moves to 31-12 (.721) all-time against the current Big 12 Conference membership, including a 14-2 (.875) mark at home and 8-4 (.667) record in the NCAA Championship ... the Fighting Irish earn their first win in five series games against Baylor, which had been one of only two opponents Notre Dame had yet to defeat with a minimum of three games played (Colorado now stands alone in that group, going 3-0 all-time vs. the Fighting Irish) ... Notre Dame made a season-high 30 free throws, also the second-most by a Fighting Irish team in an NCAA Championship contest (33 vs. George Washington in a Mideast Region second-round win in 2000) ... the 33 free throw attempts were fourth-most by a Notre Dame team in the NCAA tournament and most since a 2012 second-round victory over California, when it also tried 33 foul shots ... Notre Dame's .909 free throw percentage is the program's third-best in an NCAA tournament game and best since it shot a school-record .950 from the line in last year's first-round win over Tennessee-Martin ... sophomore guard Jewell Loyd tied a school record with her third 30-point game of the season (previously done by Beth Morgan in 1995-96, Katryna Gaither in 1994-95 and Shari Matvey in 1979-80), while posting the most points by a Notre Dame player in an NCAA Championship contest since March 23, 2010, when Skylar Diggins scored 31 points in a second-round win over Vermont ... senior forward/tri-captain Natalie Achonwa collected her team-high eighth double-double of the season (second in this year's NCAA Championship), including her fifth in her last eight NCAA tournament games ... Achonwa's 15 rebounds are second-most by a Notre Dame player in an NCAA Championship outing and most since Gaither's 16 boards against George Washington in the 1997 East Regional final ... Achonwa now has 28 career double-doubles, tying Letitia Bowen (1991-95) for fifth in program history ... Achonwa moved into fourth place on Notre Dame's career rebounding list with 970 boards, passing Jacqueline Batteast (965 from 2001-05) ... Loyd moved into 28th place on Notre Dame's all-time scoring list with 1,108 points, passing Danielle Green (1,106 from 1995-2000) ... Loyd also scored in double figures for the 41st consecutive game (second-longest streak in school history) and logged her team-leading 13th 20-point game of the season ... senior forward/tri-captain Ariel Braker posted her third double-figure scoring game of the year and tied her season high with four steals ... Notre Dame had four double-digit scorers for the 24th time this season and since 2009-10, the Fighting Irish are 99-5 (.952) in such contests, including wins in 69 of their last 70 outings ... Monday's attendance of 8,774 was once again a sellout (based upon a new seating configuration for the NCAA tournament), the fifth of the season for Notre Dame and the 41st in program history; it also tied the second-largest postseason crowd ever at Purcell Pavilion (first set for Saturday's regional semifinals), 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 the winner of the Louisville Regional final (either No. 4 (and third-seeded) Louisville or No. 11/9 (and fourth-seeded) Maryland) in an NCAA Women's Final Four national semifinal on Sunday night (either 6:30 or 9 p.m. ET) at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. -- the official tip times will be announced following the conclusion of Tuesday's regional finals, with all Final Four games to be televised live on ESPN, ESPN3 and the WatchESPN mobile app ... Notre Dame has a limited number of tickets for this year's NCAA Women's Final Four, with those going on sale to season ticket holders only beginning at 8:30 a.m. (ET) Tuesday through Notre Dame's Murnane Family Athletics Ticket Office by calling (574) 631-7356 or visiting the ticket windows inside Gate 9 (Rosenthal Atrium) at Purcell Pavilion -- no online sales will occur, and ticket limits and/or service fees may apply (follow the Ticket Office on Twitter at @NDTix for the latest information on ticket availability).