April 06, 2014
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Kayla McBride seemingly did whatever she wanted, and enjoyed herself while she did it.
The All-American senior guard shed defenders with behind-the-back dribbles and quick cross-overs before scoring. She set the tone, refusing for Notre Dame's pursuit of a perfect season end, and her Irish teammates followed her lead into Tuesday night's championship game.
In one of the most impressive games of her career, McBride scored 28 points to lead Notre Dame to an 87-61 win over Maryland Sunday night.
"She was truly special," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She was having fun out there and that was the key. She was hitting shots from all over."
The second-ranked Irish (37-0) will play No. 1 UConn (39-0) on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, setting up a title matchup of undefeated teams for the first time in NCAA history. It's the third time in four years that Notre Dame has been in the title game. The Irish are looking for their first title since winning it all in 2001.
Notre Dame and UConn were rivals for years in the BIG EAST Conference and have played 41 times, including 15 meetings over the previous four seasons. But with Notre Dame joining the ACC and Connecticut playing in the new American Athletic Conference, the two heavyweights have yet to match up this season. The Huskies hold a 30-11 edge overall, but Notre Dame has won three of the four Final Four matchups and has beaten UConn in seven of the last nine games overall. But it was the Huskies who prevailed 83-65 in the national semifinals en route to winning their eighth national championship a year ago. That was Notre Dame's last defeat, and UConn's current 45-game winning streak dates back to a 61-59 home loss to the Irish in last year's BIG EAST championship game (one of three losses for the Huskies against Notre Dame during their championship campaign). The teams have combined to go 142-2 over the last two seasons against the rest of the country.
"It means a lot as a senior," McBride said. "I'm so proud of this team. We went through a lot of adversity, especially after losing 'Ace'. We're going to go in and look at the film and be ready for the game."
Notre Dame played without senior Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the regional final victory over Baylor. The entire team wore shirts in warmups with Achonwa's No. 11 and the 6-foot-3 forward's nickname "Ace" on the back. She helped her team warm up, passing the ball and offering words of encouragement.
Muffet McGraw, who was named the Associated Press National Coach of the Year this week, was concerned coming into the game about her team's ability to rebound against the bigger Terrapins without Achonwa. It proved to be no problem for the Irish, who dominated Maryland (28-7) on the boards.
It worked. The Irish outrebounded the Terps 50-21, including a 19-4 advantage on the offensive end. It was the widest rebounding margin ever in a Final Four game shattering the previous mark of 19 set by Louisiana Tech in 1989. Maryland broke the national semifinals record for fewest rebounds in a game, previously 25 by Minnesota in 2004.
"We thought the game would be won on the boards, and I think it was," McGraw said. "To hold them to four offensive rebounds for the game was amazing. We did a great job boxing out and really limited their rebounds. Kayla McBride got us off to a phenomenal start."
Said Maryland star Alyssa Thomas: "They wanted it more. They beat us at our own game."
Notre Dame also befuddled Maryland on defense, forcing them into turnovers and poor shots with ever-changing defenses. Terps' star Alyssa Thomas was constantly double-teamed and rarely got a good look at the basket. She finished with 14 points.
Thomas ended her career as the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. She had waited four years to make the Final Four and her only trip was a short one. Coach Brenda Frese took her out with 1:33 left and the game well out of reach. Frese gave her star a long hug.
This was Maryland's first trip to the Final Four since winning the championship in 2006. The Terps were intent on crashing the party and ruining Notre Dame's perfect season.
For the first 12 minutes they were able to keep the game close with some hot shooting. They only trailed 23-21 before McBride and Notre Dame took control with a 10-0 run. McBride had the first five points hitting a layup and converting a nifty three-point play.
The first half was similar to the first meeting in the regular season when the Irish jumped all over the Terrapins, taking a 22-point advantage before Maryland rallied, eventually losing by four in Notre Dame's closest game of the season.
There was no comeback this time.
Lloyd finished with 16 points and McBride slammed the door. She scored five straight points, including a 3-pointer and a pullup jumper that made it 59-37 with 15:46 left. The Terrapins never challenged the rest of the way.
"I was trying to have fun. The last few games I've been pressing a little bit. I tried to do too much," McBride said. "I let this game come to me. I got us out and gave us that confidence but (my teammates) took care of the rest."
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame advances to the NCAA national championship game for the third time in four seasons and the fourth time in program history (2001, 2011, 2012, 2014) ... the Fighting Irish are tied for the fourth-most national title game berths in NCAA Women's Final Four history, matching Stanford's total and exceeded only by Tennessee (13), Connecticut (nine, including this year) and Louisiana Tech (six) -- the head coaches of those teams (UT's Pat Summitt, Connecticut's Geno Auriemma, La. Tech's Leon Barmore and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer) join Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw as the only five coaches in NCAA Division I history to lead their teams to four NCAA national championship game appearances ... the Fighting Irish are the fifth team to make three NCAA national title game appearances in a four-year span, along with Southern California (1983, 1984, 1986), Auburn (1988-90), Tennessee (1995-98) and Connecticut (2002-04) ... Notre Dame is 4-2 all-time in national semifinal games and 5-4 all-time at the NCAA Women's Final Four ... the Fighting Irish are 46-19 (.708) all-time in NCAA tournament games, tying for the seventh-most wins in tourney history with North Carolina and Purdue, while amassing a 32-5 (.865) record as a higher seed in the tournament and a 20-2 (.909) mark as a No. 1 seed ... Notre Dame set an NCAA Women's Final Four record with its +29 rebounding margin, topping Old Dominion's +27 mark against Georgia in the 1985 title game and Louisiana Tech's +19 total against Auburn in the 1989 national semifinals (the latter the semifinal record before Sunday night) ... Maryland's 21 rebounds were a Fighting Irish opponent season low, following three prior games when the Notre Dame opposition had just 22 boards (most recently Robert Morris in the first round of the NCAA Championship on March 22 in Toledo, Ohio) ... the Fighting Irish set an NCAA Women's Final Four national semifinal record with their 48 first-half points, the most by any team in the opening 20 minutes of a national semifinal, and tying for third-most in the first half of any Women's Final Four game ... Notre Dame's 26-point margin of victory was its largest in the program's six national semifinal games (previous was a 90-75 win over Connecticut in 2001) and third-largest ever in a national semifinal (largest since Tennessee's 86-58 win over fellow SEC member Arkansas in 1998) ... the 87 Fighting Irish points were sixth-most by any team in a national semifinal (most since Notre Dame's 90-75 win over Connecticut in 2001) ... Maryland's 61 points were the fewest Notre Dame has allowed in nine all-time NCAA Women's Final Four games (two fewer than its 72-63 win over Connecticut in the 2011 national semifinals) ... the Fighting Irish even their series record with Maryland at 4-4 (have won the last three) and are 2-0 all-time against the Terrapins in the NCAA Championship (won 80-49 in 2012 NCAA Raleigh Regional final) ... Notre Dame winds up its inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 20-0 record against league opponents, having never trailed by more than six points at any time in those 20 games (nor trailing at halftime) and winning those 20 contests by an average of 23.6 points per game ... the Fighting Irish are 14-0 this season against ranked opponents (8-0 against squads ranked in the top-10 of either or both of the AP and WBCA-USA Today polls), winning 13 of those by double figures (the lone exception had been an 87-83 win at Maryland on Jan. 27) ... Notre Dame topped 80 points for the fifth consecutive NCAA tournament game, after never reaching that mark more than three times in any of their 20 prior tournament appearances ... the Fighting Irish shot at least 50 percent from the field for the 23rd time this season ... senior guard/tri-captain Kayla McBride's 19 first-half points on Sunday against Maryland were the most by any Notre Dame player in the first half of a Women's Final Four game and tied for the 12th-most in any half in Women's Final Four history (not to mention they were one shy of McBride's total for her entire night against Maryland in the regular season) ... McBride has tied sophomore guard Jewell Loyd for the team lead with her 13th 20-point game this season, while also posting her third career 20-point outing in the NCAA Championship (she did it in the first two rounds of last year's tournament in Iowa City with 22 vs. UT-Martin and 28 at Iowa) ... freshman guard Lindsay Allen logged her 15th five-assist game of her rookie year, as well as her 27th game with 0-2 turnovers (sixth with zero turnovers) ... junior forward Markisha Wright scored a season-high 12 points (previous was eight vs. UNC Wilmington in the season opener on Nov. 9), her eighth career double-figure game and first since Dec. 31, 2012, when she tallied 20 points in a win over Saint Francis (Pa.) ... Wright is the ninth different Fighting Irish player to score in double digits at least once this season ... Notre Dame took the floor wearing its adidas postseason white uniforms with green and blue numbers, but with a twist on the blue adidas shooting (warmup) shirts -- added to back was "11, ACE" a salute to senior forward/tri-captain Natalie Achonwa who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee in the 88-69 win over Baylor in the NCAA Notre Dame Regional final on March 31 ... the Fighting Irish will play No. 1 Connecticut in the NCAA national championship game at 8:30 p.m. ET (7:30 p.m. CT) Tuesday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, with the game televised 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), and fans nationwide can listen to the game live on the Westwood One/NCAA Radio Network (check local listings for availability or listen online at www.westwoodonesports.com).